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Hearing highlights divide among Democrats, Republicans over net neutrality bill

A March 12 House subcommittee hearing underscored deep political divisions about a Democrat-backed bill to reclassify broadband internet service as a Title II telecommunications service.

Such a move would make broadband service providers once again subject to greater oversight by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, and it would restore net neutrality rules intended to ensure equal treatment of online web traffic.

The issue of broadband classification has proven politically divisive in recent years, with a Democrat-led FCC in 2015 moving broadband to the higher oversight category typically assigned to common carriers such as utilities and railroads. A Republican-led FCC undid the move through a new order implemented in 2018.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, kicked off the March 12 event by saying that the Save the Internet bill recently unveiled by Democratic leaders in the House and Senate would put a "cop on the beat" at the FCC while protecting Americans and small companies with fewer resources from "abusive and discriminatory network practices." The House committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hosted the hearing.

"A free and open internet isn't just about making sure that we can watch videos on our computers or our phones — it is much more than that," Pallone said in prepared remarks. "We must act swiftly."

But Republican legislators made clear that the Save the Internet Act does not have their party's support.

Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, said the idea that Title II is the only solution for imposing net neutrality protections is "dangerous and wrong." Instead of reclassifying broadband as a Title II service, Latta suggested that Congress come together to pass a narrower bill that restores prohibitions on blocking or throttling of legal internet traffic or prioritizing specific traffic in exchange for payment.

Similarly, Rep. Pete Olson, a Republican from Texas, said Congress keeps "playing ping-pong" with net neutrality, and he does not expect the recently proposed bill to garner enough votes in the Senate.

Industry experts testifying at the March 12 hearing were just as divided on the newly unveiled legislation.

Francella Ochillo, vice president of policy and general counsel at the National Hispanic Media Coalition — a media advocacy and civil rights organization for the advancement of Latinos — said that failure to pass the bill would create a social stratification of sorts that would favor online business with more resources and funding.

However, Robert McDowell, a former FCC commissioner and current senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a right-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C., said he believes Congress can achieve bipartisan support regarding net neutrality, but the proposed bill is not the right direction.

"I do not think that additional legislation is needed to protect consumers, startups and broadband investment," McDowell said. "The proof is in the pudding of the internet's brief but brilliant history."