GOP’s net neutrality point man says fight is not over

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
In this June 20, 2014 file photo, Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, speaks at the South Dakota Republican Convention in Rapid City, S.D. Midwestern lawmakers and farmers are shifting the attention of a locomotive and railcar shortage problem to Washington this week with legislation, a committee hearing and meetings with decision makers. Thune, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said Monday, Sept. 8, 2014, he and committee chairman Sen. John Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, are introducing legislation to give the national Surface Transportation Board more efficiency and authority, in hopes of easing the problem. (AP Photo/Toby Brusseau)

WASHINGTON — The Republican Party’s point man in Congress on net neutrality admitted Tuesday that the party has been slow to act on the issue, but insisted that Congress must be the body setting the rules for how the Internet will be regulated instead of the FCC.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the third-ranking Senate Republican and the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, spoke with Yahoo News in an interview conducted over Meerkat, a messaging app that broadcasts live video in real time to Twitter.  

Thune said he intends to make a push for Congress to pass legislation while courts litigate the rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission last week subjecting the Internet to regulation under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. Behemoth Internet service providers Verizon and Comcast are expected to bring lawsuits against the new rules.

“The FCC is going to end up in court, probably for years. And there’s going to be a lot of legal uncertainty associated with this. So Congress can create clear rules of the road,” Thune said. “We think that to achieve what people want in the end — which is an open Internet — the way to do that is to have Congress step in and establish clear rules of the road rather than rely on a statute that’s literally 80 years old."

Thune said his proposed legislation would prevent “a lot of the things that people are concerned about” — in particular the intentional slowing of online traffic, the blocking of “lawful content” by ISPs, or a requirement to pay higher fees for faster speeds — without giving “this incredible amount of power and authority to the FCC, which comes with a lot of downside risk for consumers out there.”

In other words, Thune does not believe there is no need to regulate the Internet, but believes that the proper referees for disputes over Internet resources should be Congress and the court system, rather than political appointees and appointees at a federal agency.

Thune speculated that innovative new products like Meerkat might not see the light of day if the FCC remains the place where the Internet is regulated.

Allowing the FCC to regulate net neutrality “has some serious implications for access to the Internet, cost, investment in the Internet and its future, technologies like [Meerkat], cutting-edge type things where in the past we’ve had a light touch regulatory regime that’s really encouraged and enabled innovation,” Thune said. The regime that would be implemented under the FCC could “shut it down,” he said.

Still, Republicans are late to this debate. Proponents of having the FCC regulate the Web have been making their case for years, while the GOP has largely ignored the issue. Even last week, days after the FCC had passed its new rules by a 3-to-2 vote, Republican presidential candidates at the Conservative Political Action Conference mentioned net neutrality only once, and that was in response to a question during a question and answer session.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, when asked how he would respond as president to the FCC’s new rules, said, “On that or any other principle, to me the guiding principle should be freedom.” He muttered an aside about having the “government out of the way” and then moved on. He said nothing of substance that indicated he knew anything more than the average American about the issue.

And that has been the problem write large for the GOP, which Thune acknowledged.

“That may be true,” he said when asked if the GOP has been caught off guard by the movement on net neutrality.  

“We didn’t realize they were headed down this path until November of last year when the president made it clear that he wanted the Internet basically to be treated as a public utility,” he said. “There are a lot of people across the country who are just now starting to pay closer attention to this.”

Thune also said that Republicans have failed to communicate effectively with younger Americans, who care more about net neutrality than their elders. “We’re using social media platforms through the committee, but I don’t think there’s really been an attempt to broadcast what the implications of this decision by the FCC mean for people under 30,” he said.