Internet Regulation Tests Bipartisanship

Brian Fung
National Journal

When China and Russia last year proposed building a set of rules into a long-standing global-telecommunications regime, critics decried the idea as a way for governments to spy on their citizens. Both chambers of Congress unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution opposing it. Dozens of countries, including the United States, refused to sign the final international treaty.

Now, as part of a broader effort to address Internet regulation, the House Energy and Commerce Committee wants to institutionalize Washington’s position in the talks as official policy. It’s one of those rare moments at which Democrats and Republicans find themselves in alliance based on their respective beliefs, rather than out of political expediency. Democrats see the issue as mainly about civil liberties; for the GOP, it’s about blocking government overreach.

But that bipartisanship could break down this year over a contentious piece of domestic Internet regulation: network neutrality, or the principle that every piece of Web traffic ought to be treated equally no matter where it’s going or what it contains. While the Federal Communications Commission made net neutrality a rule in the United States in 2011, the decision has come under legal challenge from businesses that want to manage their networks as they see fit. Republicans oppose the rule as a matter of unnecessary government intervention; Democrats, meanwhile, have generally favored it on consumer-protection grounds.

The Republican position is consistent with a broader party culture that rejects government overreach. But, consumer advocates say, net neutrality is also distinct from the kind of regulation proposed by China and Russia in that it attempts to ensure that each consumer enjoys the same Internet experience as everyone else. When Internet providers prioritize some types of traffic at the expense of others, it limits the activities the Internet makes possible.

How the courts rule on net neutrality will ultimately determine the extent of the FCC’s jurisdiction over broadband matters.