Hill Democrats slam FCC 'fast lane' vote

Democrats on Capitol Hill protested a Thursday vote at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that many worry will lead to Internet providers charging websites for better access to users.

“Today’s vote could spell the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it, plain and simple,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said.

“Anyone who values a free and open Internet should be deeply troubled by the FCC’s vote, and I plan to do everything I can to convince them that they need to change course.”

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On Thursday, the FCC voted to move forward with a proposal from Chairman Tom Wheeler to rewrite the agency’s net neutrality rules.

The original rules kept Internet providers from blocking or slowing access to certain websites before they were struck down by a federal court in January.

Last month, Wheeler announced he would be rewriting the rules and seeking comment on multiple pathways forward, including a proposal from his office to allow Internet providers to charge for better, “fast lane” access to users.

Despite assurances that the agency would police those “fast lane” arrangements to ensure they don’t harm consumers or competition, Wheeler faced intense backlash from critics, who said the proposal could lead to a tiered Internet that benefits only those who can afford the “fast lanes.”

Though Wheeler tweaked his plans ahead of Thursday’s vote to indicate a more serious willingness to adopt stricter rules, the criticism continued through the commission’s meeting, where protesters chanted and the agency’s two Democrats — Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn — voiced concerns before giving Wheeler the votes he needed to get the item passed.

Together, the FCC Democrats stressed that Thursday’s vote simply moved the process forward, allowing the agency to consider multiple ways to reinstate net neutrality protections.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have responded to Thursday’s vote with varying degrees of disapproval, with some calling on Wheeler to reclassify Internet providers to treat them like the more heavily regulated phone companies.

Thursday’s vote “could begin the dismantling of the open Internet as we know it unless the Commission reclassifies broadband,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who recently scheduled a field hearing on the issue to be held this summer, said he would “not support any effort by the FCC to condone” those "fast lane" agreements.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pledged to “fight to make sure [the FCC commissioners] place the interests of consumers and Internet users first.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called Wheeler’s plan “bad for consumers, bad for the next generation of businesses and bad for the future of our democracy.”

In a statement, he said Internet providers should be treated like the more heavily regulated phone companies, and called on consumers to participate in the public conversation happening at the agency as it solicits comments over the next four months.

In the House, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) warned that Wheeler’s proposal could lead to online discrimination that “is unacceptable, will lead to anti-competitive behavior and will stifle innovation.”

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Commerce subcommittee on Communications, said she welcomes Wheeler’s move to more prominently consider stronger rules, including reclassifying Internet providers.

“If the Internet is to continue to thrive, the proposed rules must be strong enough to prevent online gatekeepers from creating fast and slow lanes, and stand on strong legal ground to avoid yet another round of legal challenges,” she said in a statement.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans in Congress repeated their calls for Wheeler to drop his attempts to resurrect the net neutrality rules.

In a joint statement, Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Congress, not the FCC, should decide questions about Internet regulation.

“Instead of delegating this critical policy issue to the FCC, Congress should get to work on an Internet policy that will put consumers and competition first,” the two said.

“With Congress taking the lead, we will meet the demands of all Americans, who are increasingly turning to the Internet to access voice services, video and data without upending the ‘light touch’ regulatory framework that is in existence today.”

Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) joined Republicans in urging the FCC to proceed cautiously and look to Congress for guidance.

“Big decisions,” like ones about the future of the Internet, “should remain in the hands of the American people, and those they’ve elected to represent their best interests in Congress,” he said.

He pointed to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s current multi-year process to overhaul the FCC’s governing laws.

“We look forward to further examining Internet broadband and our nation's telecommunications policy as a whole” through that process, he said. 

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