House Republicans are asking the chief executives of tech and telecom rivals — including Facebook, Google, AT&T and Comcast* — to appear before the U.S. Congress in September and help settle the debate over net neutrality once and for all.
At the moment, the Trump administration is preparing to scrap the U.S. government's existing rules, which prevent internet service providers from blocking or slowing down web traffic, or from charging companies like YouTube or Netflix for faster delivery of their content. The reason: The Federal Communications Commission under its GOP leader, Chairman Ajit Pai, believes they're too heavy handed.
But Pai's plans for repeal — a guaranteed outcome at the Republican-controlled FCC — mark only the latest round of fighting in a debate that's more than 15 years in the making. The constant legal wrangling has left all sides in agreement that Congress should get involved and craft a law that says what internet providers can or can't do.
To that end, Rep. Greg Walden, the Republican leader of the tech-focused House Energy and Commerce Committee, has asked the chief executives of top technology and telecommunications companies to testify before his panel at a newly announced, September 7 hearing focused on net neutrality, he said today.
Invitees include Alphabet CEO Larry Page, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, A&T CEO Brian Roberts, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, and the leaders of Amazon, Netflix, Charter and Verizon, according to the committee.
In a letter requesting their appearance, Walden said the open internet rules put in place during the Obama administration — which subject broadband providers to utility-like regulation — "disrupted the longstanding regulatory balance that for years allowed the internet to grow and thrive."
As Pai looks to repeal them, however, it gives both sides "an opportunity to rethink the current regulatory model and build new rules from the ground up" in Congress, Walden continued.
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"With your help, I know we can craft a fair, predictable and sustainable solution that not only benefits edge providers and internet service providers, but also the billions of consumers worldwide that deserve a free and open internet," he told chief executives in his letter requesting their help.
At the FCC, Pai's repeal effort marks the third time in recent years that the agency is at the drawing board over net neutrality, after the likes of Comcast and Verizon took the agency to court and blocked its earlier efforts to implement open internet rules.
That vicious cycle has left both sides of the debate pining for Congress, not the FCC, to broker a resolution on net neutrality, so that the government's approach to internet policy doesn't change depending on which party is in power — or who prevails in federal courtrooms.
Even net neutrality advocates in the tech sector -- and repeal-friendly telecom giants — share a reluctance to continue fighting over the issue in wonky FCC proceedings and lawsuits. Companies like AT&T and Verizon told the FCC in official comments earlier this month that Congress should set down the final limits on how they can manage their web traffic. So did Facebook's Zuckerberg, who signaled his support for congressional action in a note posted during the July 12 online protest of Pai's plans.
Now, those very executives are being asked to come before the House and actually begin the process of legislating, no easy task for the tech and telecom industries, which have long called for Congress to take action — and long have failed to reach any compromise.
Others in Congress share a desire to pursue legislation: That includes Walden's counterpart in the Senate, John Thune, who wrote in Recode earlier this month that a new net neutrality law is "obvious and — no, I'm not kidding — within Congress's reach."
But lawmakers so far have offered few specifics, and for the moment, they don't have much Democratic support. Many in the party have rallied to save the FCC's existing, utility-like rules, preferring the Obama administration's approach.
Others, like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, fear that any attempt to tackle net neutrality with Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress will result in rules that are too weak — and given internet providers too much power to tamper with internet traffic.
"As a guy right now that has listened to Donald Trump, who is the president, who has the power of the pen, I don't want to go to work on legislation that he is not going to approve because he has a very different philosophy than I do," Booker told Recode. "I think we should have net neutrality. [Trump] is saying, let corporations be able to do the kind of things . . . all the kind of things [that] we, who believe in net neutrality, are fighting against."
Walden, however, expressed a note of optimism. Announcing his plans during a hearing with Pai and the FCC's other commissioners, the leading GOP lawmaker highlighted "consensus is forming across party lines and across industries that it's time for Congress to call a halt on the back-and-forth and set clear net neutrality ground rules for the internet."
"With almost everyone in agreement about fundamental principles to prevent anti-competitive behavior such as throttling and blocking, I think we are closer than ever to achieving a lasting resolution," he said. "The time has come to get everyone to the table and get this figured out."
* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.
—By Tony Romm, Recode.net.
CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.