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House Democrats signal a new direction for FCC oversight, net neutrality in 2019

The next U.S. Congress will bring a change in leadership and policy direction in key House of Representatives committee positions that oversee telecommunications and technology issues.

The Democrats' new House majority will result in a reshuffling of policy-setting leaders at the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a key subcommittee with jurisdiction over telecommunications and broadcast topics. The Democrats likely to take over as chair of those committees, which have oversight of the Federal Communications Commission, include critics of the Republican-majority commission's rollback of Obama-era net neutrality rules and other, more light-touch regulatory strategies from FCC leadership.

Likely leaders

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., current ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is one of those critics. In a Nov. 7 statement announcing his candidacy to become chair of the committee, Pallone signaled that its priorities and oversight tone would change under his leadership. He listed expanding broadband infrastructure, protecting net neutrality and providing "meaningful privacy and data security protections" as issues on which he would focus.

Pallone's advocacy to restore net neutrality rules represents a stark contrast from the current chair, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who lauded the FCC's passage of an order that this year reclassified broadband as a Title I service, which limits the FCC's authority to regulate broadband providers.

Pallone said in a statement prior to the election that under Democratic leadership, the committee would get back to "conducting real oversight of the FCC," indicating that it would hold more oversight hearings. As ranking member, Pallone and Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., have criticized committee Republicans for not holding quarterly oversight hearings.

Doyle currently serves as the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which has jurisdiction over telecommunications, broadcast, cable and satellite electronic communications, in addition to the FCC.

In a Nov. 7 statement to S&P Global Market Intelligence, Doyle said that as chair of the subcommittee he would work with colleagues to establish an agenda that should include protecting net neutrality, investing in broadband infrastructure, and data and privacy protections. Doyle also added that he would like to bring "much-needed oversight to the Federal Agencies under the Subcommittee's jurisdiction."

The subcommittee is currently led by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who is leaving the House after she won her bid for U.S. Senate on Nov. 6.

In the House, Blackburn took policy positions that were well received by incumbent telecommunications and broadband providers. On the issue of net neutrality, she introduced a bill that would implement some consumer protections — such as the prohibition of blocking and throttling of legal internet traffic — but would classify broadband internet as an "information service," which limits the FCC's ability to regulate internet service providers. Her bill would also prevent any states from adopting net neutrality measures that override federal law.

Meanwhile, Doyle introduced a resolution in February that would nullify the FCC's Restoring Internet Freedom order, which did away with federal net neutrality regulations.

Policy priorities

Expanding internet access through secure networks also emerged in talking points from several House Democrats who will likely take key positions in the next Congress.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is considered a leading candidate to become the next speaker of the House, called for expanding broadband networks in comments late Nov. 6. Pallone introduced an infrastructure bill in 2017 that would invest $40 billion for the deployment of "secure and resilient broadband, to expand access for communities nationwide while protecting privacy and promoting security by design." The bill is awaiting review from various committees.

Another policy area that could see momentum is privacy legislation, which has drawn bipartisan interest. Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents part of Silicon Valley in California's 17th congressional district, said in a Nov. 7 statement to S&P Global Market Intelligence that "thoughtful federal privacy reform will be a top priority" for the next Congress.

Privacy has been a hot topic in 2018 amid a series of incidents at Facebook Inc. and other tech companies involving user data that was either breached or handled improperly, exposing user information. U.S. lawmakers have been weighing how to respond to those incidents as well as Europe's data privacy protection resolution, which rolls out a series of data safeguards required for all companies that handle EU citizens' data.

Khanna recently released an "Internet Bill of Rights" proposal that would restore net neutrality rules and require opt-in consent for collection of personal data by any party and the sharing of personal data with a third party.

The broader markets appeared largely receptive to the election results, with the S&P 500 Index and Dow Jones Industrial Average both up about 2% as of market close Nov. 7.

Anna Akins contributed to this article.