FCC 'very much' eyeing Web rules shakeup

The head of the Federal Communications Commission was quick to reassure lawmakers on Wednesday that his agency is seriously considering using the authority it has to regulate phone lines on Internet service providers.

“Title II is very much on the table,” Chairman Tom Wheeler said during a House Small Business Committee hearing on Wednesday, referring to the section of the Communications Act that some have urged the agency to turn to for stronger rules.

“I will assure you that Title II is very much a topic of conversation and on the table and something that’s we’ve specially asked for comment on,” he added.

In its controversial proposal on net neutrality — the notion that Internet service companies like Comcast or Cox should be banned from slowing or block access to some websites — the agency specifically asked whether it should reclassify broadband Internet as a “telecommunications service” and open them up to Title II rules, instead of an “information service.”

The plan Wheeler proposed earlier this year would not rely on that authority, but would instead allow for companies to make “commercially reasonable” deals to speed up users’ service on a particular website. Critics have said that would lead to “fast lanes” on the Internet, with quicker speeds for wealthy companies and slower service everywhere else.

Supporters of strong rules have told the FCC that the stronger legal backing is the best way to prevent companies from slowing users’ service or blocking their access to particular websites.

Critics, however, have said that the rules were designed for telephone monopolies and would lead to utility-style regulation on the Internet. In their comments to the FCC, cable companies have said that reclassifying broadband service to use the tough rules would likely be a violation of the law, which could tie the new rules up in court for years to come.

Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.), a member of the Small Business Committee, told Wheeler that he was “concerned” about the prospect of Title II authority.

“I would caution greatly against further federal regulation of the internet,” he said.