Senate Dems: Regulate Internet like telephones

A group of 13 senators is pressuring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reconsider the way it regulates Internet providers.

The FCC should reclassify Internet providers to treat them like more heavily regulated phone companies rather than proceed with Chairman Tom Wheeler’s plan to rewrite the agency’s net neutrality rules, the lawmakers said in a letter to Wheeler Tuesday.

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Wheeler’s proposal — which could allow Internet providers to charge websites for better access to users — “would end the Internet as we know it,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said Tuesday in unveiling the letter.

Other signatories include Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Ron Wyden (R-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The lawmakers' letter arrives as the agency is close to closing the first round of comments on Wheeler’s controversial plan.

Wheeler incited a firestorm in April when he unveiled his idea to rewrite the agency’s net neutrality rules, which kept Internet providers from selectively slowing or blocking access to websites before they were struck down by a federal court earlier this year.

His plan, critics said, would allow Internet providers to charge websites for “fast lane” access to their users, creating a tiered Internet where deep-pocketed companies can afford to reach users while others languish.

After facing backlash from Democrats at the commission and on Capitol Hill, Wheeler broadened his plan to more seriously consider other options, including reclassifying Internet providers.

In their letter Tuesday, the senators pushed Wheeler to reclassify.

“We must take steps to prevent broadband providers from creating Internet fast lanes for those who can pay, leaving others stuck in traffic,” the letter said.

“It would be appropriate to reclassify broadband to reflect the vital role the Internet plays in carrying our most important information and our greatest ideas.”

During a press conference unveiling the letter, the senators said reclassification — which is generally considered an uphill political battle — would create more certainty around the open Internet.

“If the FCC repeats history and again puts in place net neutrality rules on shaky legal grounds, then we will find ourselves right back in court,” Markey said.

“Strong net neutrality rules cannot be established under the current framework,” Schumer said, calling reclassification the “balanced and judicious way” to ensure net neutrality and pledging to back Wheeler politically if he reclassifies.

Strong net neutrality protections are needed to prevent an “almost Orwellian architecture where all information is basically controlled by corporations with deep pockets,” Franken said.

Updated at 3:02 p.m.