GOP senators to feds: Leave the Internet alone

Federal regulations threaten to strangle the growth of the Internet economy, Republican lawmakers warned Tuesday.

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Speaking at the 10th annual State of the Net policy conference, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Pompeo condemns Iran for 'act of war' while Trump moves with caution Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet NRA says Trump administration memo a 'non-starter' MORE (S.D.), the Senate Commerce Committee’s top ranking Republican and co-chairman of the Congressional Internet Caucus, challenged federal officials to stop meddling online.

“I wish more government officials shared my optimism about how successful the Internet is about facilitating individual economic empowerment,” he told the conference, which was hosted by the nonprofit Internet Education Foundation.

“There are exceptions of course, but far too often, when you hear someone say, ‘We need regulations to protect the Internet,’ what they’re actually saying is they don’t really trust the entrepreneurs and Internet technologists to create the economic growth and to increase public welfare.”

And while the government might have helped create the Internet, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the rapid explosion of online companies was only possible because federal officials got out of the way.

“It was a place where people went where they weren’t told what to do,” Paul said.  

Paul said other sectors of the economy have been hurt by regulations that have prevented companies from thinking outside the box. 

“That’s what we need to protect against with the Internet, is that it’s been a very free and open place, but we don’t want to let government get too involved with it, because I think that will stifle innovation,” he said.

The remarks from GOP lawmakers seemed to be a direct challenge to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, who spoke at the event earlier in the morning.

Wheeler made the case for government action to ensure equal treatment of content online as well as oversight of the ways that networks connect to each other on the Internet, known as peering.

The FCC was dealt a major blow earlier this month when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down the FCC’s rules on net neutrality, which prevented Internet service providers from treating websites differently based on the type of content they offer.

Republicans criticized the FCC’s rules and cheered the appeals court for tossing them out.

“While the Internet is largely unregulated, many folks nonetheless want to apply archaic telephone regulations to the digital ecosystem, and that is the crux of the policy debate that were having here in Washington, D.C.,” Thune said.

“I have to say that I honestly don’t understand how anyone believes that laws designed for Ma Bell in the 1930s are appropriate for the Internet today.”

The appeals court decided the rules had been improperly written, but nonetheless upheld the FCC’s authority to regulate the Web. Supporters of the rules argued that amounted to a win for the agency.

“I interpret what the court did as an invitation to us,” Wheeler said on Tuesday. “I intend to accept that invitation.”

Some supporters have urged the FCC to reclassify Internet access as a “telecommunications service” instead of an “information service,” which would allow it to impose new net-neutrality rules.

Wheeler did not address whether he would support that action during Tuesday’s conference. He did say, however, the FCC would support a “dynamic” oversight of content online that looked at “case sets as well as generic concept rules.”

He also said the FCC “has to stay on top of” peering arrangements, which he called “a cousin” of net neutrality. Peering disputes can cause slow loading speeds at sites like Netflix that send Internet providers a lot of traffic. 

“Our job is to make sure that whatever happens is not anti-competitive, is not favoring one party,” Wheeler said.

Thune told the conference he planned to work with colleagues in the Senate to get rid of obsolete laws and regulations, update those that are still necessary and ensure that U.S. companies are protected from foreign threats.

“The world moves so fast, it is hard for even the most technologically savvy and digitally connected person to keep up with everything, so it should be no surprise that our laws have fallen woefully behind,” he said.

“Many of the policies affecting our digital life were written in a world that is unrecognizable to today’s digital natives, and they are just as outdated as the dialup modem.”