Net neutrality rules face uncertain future after House vote

Late last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a budget bill that included a prohibition on the Federal Communications Commission enforcing net neutrality rules, but it’s unclear whether that provision will survive.

The Republican-controlled House voted early Saturday to approve the so-called continuing resolution, a short-term budget bill that would allow the federal government to operate beyond March 4, when funding approval expires. The bill, which includes $61 billion in cuts to the federal government’s budget, includes an amendment that would bar the FCC from using funding to implement net neutrality rules the agency approved in December.

But on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he planned to introduce his own short-term budget that would extend federal funding at current levels for 30 days. Some lawmakers have suggested they would prefer to shut down the government rather than compromise.

The dueling budget bills leave a cloudy future for the net neutrality provision. Some advocates in the net neutrality debate see little chance the provision will survive; others aren’t so sure.

“It’s unlikely in the extreme that the net neutrality provision in the continuing resolution will make it through the Senate, and we have heard no indication that it would be used as a bargaining chip,” said Kamilla Kovacs, communications director at the Media Access Project, an advocacy group in favor of strong net neutrality rules. “Key Senate appropriators have expressed to us that they strongly oppose the measure.”

But the provision may find some support in the Senate, said Claude Chafin, spokesman for Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican and critic of the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Ten Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the net neutrality amendment.

“I would suggest that the FCC’s unilateral appropriation of jurisdiction over the Internet has given many members pause,” he said. “It is fair to assume that sentiment carries over to the Senate as well. Mrs. Blackburn believes the FCC amendment can survive in the Senate.”

Critics of the FCC rules have said they are unnecessary regulation of the Internet that could hurt investment in broadband. The rules prohibit broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web traffic and applications.

Supporters say the rules are needed to protect broadband customers and Web application providers from decisions by broadband providers to favor their own or their partners’ traffic and applications over competitors. Supporters point to a handful of cases in recent years in which broadband providers have blocked or slowed Web applications.

Art Brodsky, communications director for net neutrality supporter Public Knowledge, called the House provision “terribly misguided,” but he wouldn’t predict that the Senate would kill it. “Everything is on the table,” he said.

It’s hard to predict what will happen in the coming days, added Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, an antiregulation think tank. “It is certainly possible that in an effort to find a compromise that avoids a government shutdown, the cut-off of government funds will become a bargaining chip,” May said. “And it is possible to envision a scenario in which the Senate Democrats accede to the House cut-off, or vice versa.”

A continuing resolution would, at the longest, continue government funding until Sept. 30, after which the 2012 fiscal year budget begins, May noted. “This is only an early, and relatively minor, skirmish in a longer war,” he said.

Tom Lenard, another critic of net neutrality rules, questioned if the House provision will survive.

“It’s useful for the House to make clear that it believes the FCC has overstepped its authority with the net neutrality rules, whether or not this provision makes it through,” said Lenard, president of the Technology Policy Institute, another antiregulation think tank. “It very well could end up being used as a bargaining chip but I think it is unlikely to make it into the final budget.”

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