In a dramatic move, Rep. Henry Waxman on Wednesday said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should use its power to regulate Internet service providers.
Waxman’s (D-Calif.) decision, which came after Republicans said they could not support legislation he was drafting, could change the debate over a cornerstone of President Obama’s policies on technology and the Internet.
The move by the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee gives political cover to the FCC to move forward with “reclassification” of Internet services, which could place cable- and telephone-company broadband businesses under certain telephone strictures.
Waxman has not previously endorsed action by the FCC, but on Wednesday said the agency should move forward absent bipartisan agreement on legislation.
“If our efforts to find bipartisan consensus fail, the FCC should move forward,” he said. “The bottom line is that we must protect the open Internet. If Congress can’t act, the FCC must.”
FCC action would be a huge blow to cable and telephone companies, which call reclassification the “nuclear option.” They had seen action by Congress as preferable, believing they’d have a greater chance to influence a final product.
Waxman had worked with stakeholders from consumer groups as well as phone, cable and Internet companies this month to create a consensus on net-neutrality legislation. It would have applied some protective measures to how broadband providers deliver Internet traffic, a priority for public advocates and Internet companies.
Perhaps more importantly for broadband companies, it would have taken reclassification off the table.
But Republicans signaled on Wednesday that they would not back the bill despite its endorsement from a wide swath of stakeholders who have fought on this issue for years.
GOP lawmakers on Wednesday cast the measure as Democrats trying to do too much to regulate private business. They said Congress should instead make it clear that the FCC cannot reclassify Internet services under rules for traditional phone services.
“If the Congress wants to prevent the FCC reclassifying Internet service under Title II, it should go ahead and do so without qualification," House Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton (Texas) said Wednesday.
Waxman said he had "great regret" that Republicans would not sign on, noting they were involved in crafting the proposal.
It was a “loss for consumers and a gain only for the extremes,” he said. “We need to break the deadlock on net neutrality so that we can focus on building the most open and robust Internet possible,” he said.
House aides had expected the bill to be introduced this week, and Waxman signaled he would be willing to revisit the issue when Congress returns.
“Cooler heads may prevail after the elections,” he said. Observers said, however, that such a possibility could be a long shot since time is limited and the Democrats will have a lot to do during that period. More than 20 pieces of legislation appear to be under consideration for a lame-duck session of Congress.
Waxman's endorsement of reclassification is dramatic because observers on all sides of the equation have questioned whether FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski would be bold enough to move forward.
Genachowski proposed reclassification five months ago but failed to move ahead as missives poured into the FCC this summer from members opposed to that change.
But an endorsement from a key Democratic leader could be a game-changer, particularly if his Senate counterpart makes a similar endorsement.
“I think [Waxman's endorsement] gives [Genachowski] a fair amount of political cover,” said Paul Glenchur, an analyst with Potomac Research Group.
“You still have a majority of members who aren't backing reclassification, but if he has the support of the leadership on the House and Senate Commerce committees, it gives him some air cover if he wants to move ahead.”
The net-neutrality developments prompted consumer groups to renew their push for reclassification.
Joel Kelsey, the political adviser to Free Press, said that in the wake of Waxman's announcement, “consumers need FCC action now more than ever.”
This story is a newspaper edit that condenses posts from the blog.