Anna Eshoo, the darling of tech companies, wants to make net neutrality the law

February 3

House Democrats are pushing to restore the network neutrality regulations promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission and struck down in part last month by a federal court. Leading the charge will be a woman who is gunning to be one of the most powerful Democrats on technology issues: Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is retiring next year, capping off a four-decade congressional career. Today, Eshoo announced that she is seeking to replace him as the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce committee, which has jurisdiction over electronic communications, cybersecurity and the Federal Communications Commission. If she gets the nod, she would leapfrog over other prominent Democrats, including Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).

Eshoo and Waxman on Monday unveiled a bill that would reinstate the FCC's "open Internet" order prohibiting Internet providers from blocking or discriminating against Web traffic. While the law would be in effect only until the FCC can come up with its own solution accommodating the court's legal objections, it would again require companies like Verizon and AT&T to treat all types of Internet content equally.

"The FCC can and must quickly exercise the authorities the D.C. Circuit recognized to reinstate the Open Internet rules," Waxman said in a statement. "Our bill makes clear that consumers and innovators will be protected in the interim."

The House bill will be joined in the Senate by legislation from Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

Experts say the bill has little chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But Eshoo's sponsorship of the bill will raise her profile as a leader of her party on tech policy issues. Eshoo won the adoration of the Internet in 2011 over her opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act of 2011. Critics of the proposal said it would allow copyright infringement claims to block access to much of the Web. In response, major Web sites such as Wikipedia went dark on a day of protest. The controversy led Eshoo to call for pulling the "emergency brake" on the bill.

The announcement that she is seeking to replace Waxman is already making waves in a town where seniority rules. If the rest of her Democratic colleagues in the chamber approve, she'll have leapfrogged not only over the more senior Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) — who also said Monday he's seeking Waxman's role — but also over Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who outranks both Eshoo and Pallone and served as the top liberal on the committee from 2007 to 2009. Dingell had the title snatched from him by Waxman in 2008. Tech policy insiders say Dingell is considering whether to pursue his former position.

Despite her rank, Eshoo is a friend of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and has become a high-profile lawmaker in her own right, particularly on technology issues. Like Waxman, Eshoo has been an outspoken advocate on net neutrality. In 2009, two years before the Federal Communications Commission issued its controversial open Internet order, Eshoo helped author a bill that would have outlawed Web traffic discrimination entirely. Last month, the co-chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus reiterated her stance on net neutrality after the D.C. Circuit ruled against the FCC, vowing to "introduce legislation clarifying the Commission's authority to ensure a free and open Internet, while preventing the use of Internet 'fast lanes' or other discriminatory tools." Monday's bill appears to be the product of that promise.

In addition to Internet regulation, the California Democrat has also led the charge on e-mail spam, broadband deployment, electric vehicle infrastructure and immigration, the last of which is extremely near to the hearts of tech companies that depend on high-skilled foreign workers. Her district covers tech-heavy parts of the Bay Area, including Palo Alto and Mountain View, the home of Google. (Googlers, including executive chairman Eric Schmidt, altogether donated more than $20,000 to Eshoo's campaign committee last year, according to a review of public records.)

With FCC chairman Tom Wheeler vowing to act in response to the D.C. Circuit ruling — and given a looming fight in Congress over the debt ceiling — Waxman and Eshoo's latest bill may not have a chance to go anywhere. But it does give Eshoo more evidence to prove herself as Waxman's would-be successor.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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