The arrow flying toward the beating heart of net neutrality just traveled another inch.
On Thursday, the Senate committee that authorizes federal spending approved a bill that takes aim at the FCC‘s net neutrality rules, setting the stage for another in a long line of skirmishes over the future of the open Internet.
The bill, which funds a host of government agencies for the upcoming fiscal year, passed the Senate Appropriations Committee 16-14, despite objections from Democrats who opposed, among other things, its restrictions on how the Federal Communications Commission could spend its budget.
If the Senate bill becomes part of Congress‘ final budget, it will give the FCC $320 million, a $20-million reduction from last year. It will also forbid the FCC from spending any of that money to regulate the cost of Internet access.
Open-Internet groups and liberal senators have been pushing the FCC to use its new net-neutrality rules to scrutinize Internet prices, but congressional Republicans don’t want the commission intervening in what they consider a fairly functioning market.
“We are disappointed by today’s vote and wish more senators had voted to support consumers and small businesses,” said Joshua Stager, Policy Counsel for New America’s Open Technology Institute. “As currently drafted, the bill jeopardizes Internet freedom and handcuffs the FCC’s ability to protect online innovation.”
Democrats on the Appropriations Committee attacked the FCC provision and warned that it could have far-reaching consequences.
The bill “is written so broadly it could potentially undermine central net neutrality protections and tie the FCC’s hands on a slew of other consumer abuses,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the committee, said in a statement. “It could, for example, inhibit the FCC’s ability to enforce transparency rules or ensure that broadband providers do not prioritize content and services of their affiliates.”
The FCC section of the Senate bill does not go as far as its equivalent in the House. That bill, which was approved on June 17, completely prohibits the FCC from using its budget to enforce any part of its net-neutrality rules until a federal court settles a lawsuit brought by the telecom industry.
An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment on the spending bill. The commission has said that it does not plan to use net-neutrality rules to dictate broadband prices.
Illustration by Jason Reed