For years, tech companies and Internet providers have been at each others' throats on Internet policy — and net neutrality especially. Now, House Republicans are teeing up a big showdown on the issue, inviting the biggest companies from both industries to testify on Capitol Hill this fall.
Top executives from AT&T, Comcast, Facebook, Google, Netflix and Verizon, among others, are all being asked to show up on Sept. 7 to argue their side.
“Your company has played a significant part in the public conversation to date, and your input would be invaluable” as Congress begins to talk about legislation that could replace the government's net neutrality rules, according to a letter sent by committee chair Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and other execs.
It's unclear which chief executives may attend; Facebook said Tuesday that it had received the letter and was reviewing it.
Net neutrality is the concept that Internet providers should not slow down, block or charge websites a fee for their content to be displayed on consumers' screens. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission implemented rules that would enshrine that principle into regulation. But Internet providers objected and sued to overturn the rules, saying the FCC's move was too burdensome and would prevent them from finding new ways of making money. Consumer groups argue that only strong rules such as the FCC's can prevent the industry from tilting the Internet economy to benefit their own, proprietary or partner websites.
The current FCC, under chairman Ajit Pai, has proposed rolling back the rules. With a 2-1 majority at the commission, Pai has enough votes to succeed. Analysts widely expect the move to be challenged in court. In remarks at a subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Walden said bringing the two industries together would provide an opportunity to “stop the ping-pong games of regulation and litigation.”
The FCC is currently taking comments from the public on its proposal. More than 12 million have been filed to date, though the comment system has been a subject of controversy amid polarizing accusations of automated and bogus comments clogging the docket, as well as a dispute over an alleged denial-of-service attack against the agency.
Republicans in both houses of Congress are stepping up calls for a net neutrality bill. But the effort appears to lack Democratic backing as the party has sought to turn net neutrality into a campaign issue targeting Republicans. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the FCC plan for net neutrality represents a high-profile example of the agency “siding with large corporations over small businesses and hardworking Americans.”