Internet rules stir passionate debate

The Federal Communications Commission is being bombarded with passionate calls for a wholesale change to the way the Internet is regulated.

While reclassifying Internet providers to treat them like phone companies would be an uphill political battle, companies, lawmakers and members of the public are pressing the agency to do it anyway.

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The FCC has received more than 1 million comments about its proposed rewrite of net neutrality rules. Amid profanity-filled diatribes and threats against FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, many of the comments ask the agency to change the way it regulates Internet providers.

Under the agency’s old net neutrality rules, Internet providers were regulated as “Title I” or “information” services.

Phone companies, in contrast, are classified as “Title II” or “telecommunications” services, meaning they are regulated more like utility companies.

While Wheeler initially focused on rewriting the net neutrality rules under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, he began focusing more seriously on reclassification after a backlash from Democrats on the Commission and on Capitol Hill.

The pressure from lawmakers and industry players — including Internet companies such as Netflix and Mozilla — has intensified since May, when the FCC voted to move ahead with Wheeler’s plan to rewrite the net neutrality rules, which had prevented Internet providers from slowing or blocking access to websites.

This week, 13 Democratic senators — led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and including Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — wrote to Wheeler, pushing him to reclassify.

The agency should reclassify “to reflect the vital role the Internet plays in carrying our most important information and our greatest ideas,” the letter said.

Markey told The Hill that he is pushing reclassification to create certainty for the companies and users that rely on an open Internet.

“My goal is to create real predictability for the long term future” so that companies “understand what the rules are going to be in the years ahead,” he said.

Franken called reclassification “the only realistic path left.”

“The FCC already tried to create net neutrality rules without reclassification, and they were stopped by the courts,” Franken said in a statement to The Hill.

“The FCC shouldn’t make the same mistake again.”

According to one Hill Democratic aide, lawmakers fear the FCC is headed for another court defeat with its current approach to the rules.

“If they go down [the path of Section] 706, a lot of people think it’s going to be déjà vu,” the aide said. “Why not try Title II?”

Supporters of reclassification also point to the mounting public interest in the net neutrality debate.

Cathy Sloan, vice president of Government Relations for the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said the first court defeat has raised the stakes for the FCC.

“When the Commission was trying to build a rule where there was none before, expectations weren’t so high,” said Sloan, whose group includes Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

As Internet becomes a more crucial part of most Americans’ everyday lives, reclassification becomes less of a political issue, Sloan said.

“Beyond the Beltway, it’s not a partisan issue,” she said. 

Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, said “Title II” has become a more widely accepted idea.

Reclassification “has gone since 2010 from being what was considered to be the sort of more radical position … to being a much more mainstream political selling point,” he said.

Supporters of reclassification say that, as awareness of reclassification has increased, opposition has begun to soften.

One oft-cited measure is the number of Hill Democrats who oppose reclassification.

In 2010, when the FCC last mulled reclassification, Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) organized more than 70 of his colleagues in a letter to then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski opposing reclassification.

“The significant regulatory impact of reclassifying broadband service is not something that should be taken lightly and should not be done without additional direction from Congress,” the lawmakers wrote.

“We urge you not to move forward with a proposal that undermines critically important investment in broadband and the jobs that come with it.”

A similar letter Green sent this past May had fewer than half as many signatures.

Reclassification supporters also point to a recent House vote on an FCC funding bill.

Republicans could have attached a measure that would have prohibited the FCC from reclassifying Internet companies, but chose not to.

“It’s sufficiently controversial that the Republicans decided that, ‘We don’t want to pick this fight right now,’ ” Feld said.

“The political tide has changed.”

While there may be less vocal opposition from some camps, there’s no guarantee that reclassification would succeed.

In filings to the FCC, the major Internet providers — including Comcast, Verizon and AT&T — warned that reclassification would hurt the Internet.

“Reclassification would mire the industry in years of uncertainty and litigation, and it would abruptly stall the virtuous circle of investment and innovation that has propelled the United States to the forefront of the broadband revolution,” AT&T told the FCC.

Comcast warned the agency that reclassifying Internet providers “is not only entirely unnecessary but would be unwise and likely unlawful.”

Jon Banks, senior vice president for law and policy at USTelecom, said the FCC should focus on the growth of Internet access under its current classification.

“Under Title I, we’ve had massive investment and innovation from broadband providers” and websites, he said.

“Why would you want to change that?”

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