FCC commissioners ratify net neutrality, fulfilling Obama pledge

After nearly a decade of battle, the Federal Communications Commission approved contentious net-neutrality regulations on Tuesday over the strong objections of two Republican commissioners.

The vote marks the first time the agency has created formal rules for Internet lines, fulfilling an Obama campaign promise to prevent phone and cable companies from exerting too much control over the Internet.

"As we stand here now, the freedom and openness of the Internet are unprotected ... That will change once we vote to approve this strong and balanced order," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at a commission meeting on Tuesday.

Tuesday's vote closes a long chapter for Genachowski, after he sped out of the gates last year promising strong net-neutrality protections.

He quickly drew the wrath of the telecommunications industry and the skepticism of both parties in Congress, while frustrating consumer groups as his promises became mired in delay.

Though the rules passed on Tuesday have drawn strong criticism from both staunch net-neutrality opponents and proponents, Genachowski touted the order as a victory for moderation.

"I reject both extremes in favor of a strong and sensible framework — one that protects Internet freedom and openness and promotes robust innovation and investment," he said. 

Many staunch net-neutrality proponents wish the rules were stronger, while many opponents feel the rules constitute government overreach.

The rules create new transparency standards for wired and wireless carriers; they also prevent wired carriers from blocking lawful applications and services. Wireless carriers are prohibited from blocking websites as well as applications that compete with their services. 

The effort won partial praise and partial criticism from the agency's Democratic commissioners, who wanted stronger rules, particularly for wireless connections. 

Tuesday's strongest statements came from the Republican commissioners, who said the agency is overstepping its authority and attempting to act as a lawmaking body. 

"The FCC is not Congress. We cannot make laws," said Republican Commission Robert McDowell, describing Tuesday as "one of the darkest days in FCC history."

"The era of Internet regulatory arbitrage has dawned," he said. 

He also predicted the effort will get shot down in court.

Republican Commissioner Meredith Baker suggested the chairman's office used a manipulative process to pass the order, providing her a copy of the proposal in the late hours of last night. 

"I think we can all do better and let's do so in the new year," she said.

The FCC's action did not completely satisfy anyone on Capitol Hill. 

Congressional Republicans vowed on Tuesday to work against the new regulations. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said the next Congress should pass two bills to halt the FCC action, including one that would force it to prove market failure before making new rules. 

"To keep the Internet economy thriving, this decision must be reversed. Regulatory reform will be a top priority for Republicans in the next Congress, and I intend to prevent the FCC or any government agency from unilaterally burdening our recovering economy with baseless regulation," DeMint said in a statement.

Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) promised that the incoming GOP House majority will work to reverse the FCC's action. He also suggested the effort shows Democrats are not focused on unemployment. 

"The American people are asking ‘Where are the jobs?’ They aren’t asking for yet another government takeover that imposes more job-killing federal regulations and puts bureaucrats in charge of the Internet," Boehner said.

Ardent net-neutrality proponent Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) gave the commission a mixed review, saying he wished the order went further. Markey wanted stronger rules for wireless as well as a complete ban on paid prioritization, which allow companies to pay more to have their Internet traffic fast-tracked. 

"In some areas of the order, the FCC gets high letter grades, but in others, the agency gets an incomplete," he said. 

House Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who authored legislation that the FCC's order is based on, issued a generally positive statement about the effort but left the door open to strengthening it. 

"The rule may not go as far as some would like, but it is a huge advance over the status quo," he said. 

Waxman said the order is a "floor, not a ceiling" on basic protections.

"If the rule’s protections prove insufficient and consumers and innovation suffer, they will need to be strengthened, and I will vigorously support that effort," he said. 

Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va) said he has "reservations" about the separate treatment of wired and wireless broadband, but he said the effort constitutes "a meaningful step forward." 


—This story has been updated with reactions from lawmakers.