Lawmaker to Try Again to Find Common Ground on Internet Rules

By John D. McKinnon Features Dow Jones Newswires

An influential House committee chairman is launching a new effort to pass compromise net-neutrality legislation, seeking common ground between high-tech and telecommunications firms that have battled for a decade over internet governance rules.

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Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R., Ore.) said he would begin hearings in early September with executives from major internet firms such as Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Netflix Inc., as well as major broadband providers such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp.

The Federal Communications Commission is moving toward a vote as soon as September to void much of the current rules of the road for the internet, although officials on Tuesday didn't offer a firm timeline for a decision.

Internet and telecommunications firms have bickered for the past decade over details of the rules -- for example, whether providers should be prohibited from blocking content or offering fast lanes to those willing to pay. The FCC also has struggled to find the proper legal footing for its internet rules among the aging federal telecommunications laws, and two previous versions of its rules were tossed out by courts.

Many policy makers and tech-law experts say Congress has neglected to keep telecommunications laws up to date given the pace of change in technology and the growth of the companies that drive the internet. The last major rewrite was more than 20 years ago.

"It is time for Congress to legislate the rules of the internet, and stop the ping-pong game of regulations and litigation," Mr. Walden said. He made his comments Tuesday at a subcommittee hearing on FCC oversight.

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Tech firms gained strong protection from their telecommunications rivals in the latest version of the net-neutrality rules adopted by the FCC in 2015, during the Obama administration. Those strict rules prohibited the providers from blocking, throttling or offering fast lanes, and reclassified the internet providers as common carriers, subjecting them to strict utility-style oversight.

But the GOP victory in 2016 has led to an effort to roll back those net-neutrality rules. Republicans generally have been sympathetic to arguments by telecommunications firms that the strict 2015 version will slow investment in broadband, partly because of the risk that the rules will be further tightened to include rate regulation. Republicans are likely to seek to maintain net-neutrality principles in whatever they adopt, but the new rules are likely to be less prescriptive.

The rollback effort has generated considerable controversy, and more than 12 million comments -- many of them opposing the rollback -- have been filed with the FCC, although officials question the validity of some, saying they were generated by bots. Whatever the FCC adopts is almost sure to be the subject of another lengthy legal challenge.

That has further encouraged Republicans to try to pass legislation, which they last tried in 2015.

Faced with the growing likelihood of a sweeping rollback of the 2015 rules, some tech firms also have appeared to voice stronger support for legislation lately.

During an internet protest of the planned rollback on July 12, for example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a posting that his company strongly supports the current rules, but is "open to working with members of Congress" on new legislation to protect net neutrality.

Telecommunications firms were encouraged by the news, while internet companies were more reserved.

AT&T Executive Vice President Tim McKone said in a blog post that Mr. Walden's announcement "demonstrates that momentum appears to be building for a legislative solution to put sensible open internet rules on solid ground....While being trapped in an endless loop of controversy over net neutrality may be in the interest of those who fundraise off of it, it is poor public policy that threatens investment by service providers and denies consumers the tremendous benefits that stem from such investment."

Comcast said in a statement, "We applaud Chairman Walden's call to hear from companies across the internet ecosystem...on the ground rules for net neutrality going forward. Comcast believes the best way to stop the regulatory ping-pong on this important issue is for Congress to enact bipartisan legislation."

A spokeswoman for Facebook confirmed that the company received an invitation to the event and is currently reviewing it. Representatives of for Alphabet, Amazon and Netflix declined to comment.

--Douglas MacMillan in San Francisco contributed to this article.

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 25, 2017 18:05 ET (22:05 GMT)