Lawmakers are sharpening their knives for a fight over new regulations on Internet service companies.
Public reaction to the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed rules for net neutrality — the notion that Comcast, Cox or other Internet service providers should be barred from blocking or slowing access to some websites — has been louder than anything the agency has experienced in the past.
But the battle has only just begun.
On Capitol Hill, deep partisan divides over the issue virtually guarantee that whatever decision the FCC makes will be met with steep opposition.
That could presage a vicious and drawn-out battle that spills into the months after the FCC finalizes its rules, which Chairman Tom Wheeler has planned to do by the end of the year.
On one side, Democrats have pushed for the FCC to ban “fast lanes” on the Internet, which critics have said could emerge under Wheeler’s plan if Internet service companies charge Netflix, YouTube or other websites for speedier service.
Some of the Democratic Party’s more liberal members, along with the moderate Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), have pushed the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet service as a “telecommunications service” instead of as an “information service.” That move would give the FCC more power over companies by drawing from the same legal authority that the agency uses to regulate traditional wired phone lines.
“I’m here because this is going to be an ongoing struggle to make sure that the personality of the Internet remains in a way that encourages the new ideas, the new technologies to be developed,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a supporter of reclassification, said at a press conference Wednesday, flanked by executives from Web companies like Kickstarter and Vimeo.
Republicans, meanwhile, have struck back, warning that tough rules would allow the heavy hand of the FCC to stifle the Internet.
“Many, including this senator, are highly skeptical about the prospects of expansive FCC regulation over every aspect of the Internet,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in a hearing Wednesday. “The Internet has been successful precisely because of the hands-off approach.”
Some Republicans have pushed back on the suggestion that the FCC should dust off old regulations to assert authority over Internet providers.
“Americans are sending a consistent message, which is, ‘Don’t break the Internet,’ ” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). “Subjecting the Internet to heavy-handed regulations, the type of regulations that were designed to regulate the railroad industry in the 19th century and designed to regulate Ma Bell in the 20th century, could threaten to do precisely that.”
In their filings with the FCC in recent weeks, major cable companies have said they believe the reclassification would be an illegal power grab and lead to years of courtroom battles.
Nonetheless, the prospect is “very much a topic of conversation and on the table” at the FCC, Wheeler said during a separate hearing in the House Small Business Committee — at least the third forum where the rules were discussed Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
The Capitol’s focus on net neutrality came days after the commission announced it had received 3.7 million public comments on its proposal, more than twice as many as it had ever received on a single issue.
Many of the comments expressed fear that Wheeler’s plan would not go far enough to ban “fast lanes,” which could create a “two-tiered” Internet, one with faster service for companies with deep pockets that could pay the Web companies’ “tolls” and another with slower service for those who couldn’t.
“I believe the FCC should heed the call,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who has introduced a bill to ban the deals, formally known as “paid prioritization agreements.”
“Whether our bill passes or not, the FCC should act to prevent this kind of behavior,” he added.
Another point of contention is whether the rules will apply when people access the Internet wirelessly on their smartphones and tablets, as opposed to through the cable wires that run to a home or office.
The commission’s original 2010 rules, which were struck down by a court earlier this year, did not apply to wireless service. But Wheeler has dropped several hints about taking that step this time, to high marks from supporters of strong rules.
“A young person today growing up expects their wireless device to be able to take them anywhere they want to go,” Markey said. “To the extent to which wireless has to be covered, then those rules should be out on the books as well.”
Capitol Hill’s partisan divide over the Internet rules mirrors the split among the FCC’s five commissioners.
The commission’s two Republicans, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, voted against issuing the draft proposal earlier this year and are expected to oppose whatever final rules the commissioner comes up with.
Already, Congress is being asked to take the reins.
“If the [FCC] is unable to take action, whether because of concerns about its jurisdiction or because of the enormity of the policy undertaking, we respectfully request Congress to step in,” the Writers Guild of America East — a union and supporter of strong rules — wrote to the Senate on Wednesday.
“Our elected officials can clarify that the Internet is subject to regulation as a utility,” they added, “and can adopt robust, far-ranging, and enforceable nondiscrimination rules that will protect the American public and the people who create interesting, inspiring, informative content for digital distribution.”