The rancor in Washington over network neutrality is about to enter a new phase: all-out political and judicial warfare. Federal Communications Commission approval today of ambitious new regulations for Internet service has triggered a heated debate over the government’s role in regulating cyberspace—providing ample fodder for an empowered Republican Party as it prepares to take control of the House next month.
The rules were adopted on a 3-2 partisan vote, with the agency's three Democrats backing passage and the two Republican commissioners strongly opposed. The regulations are designed to ensure that the Internet is not dominated by major telecommunications and cable companies. They prohibit anti-competitive blocking and degrading of competing online services and are enforceable by the agency.
Dismissing the regulations as an unnecessary government intrusion in the marketplace, Republicans in both chambers vowed to try to block them, while industry and watchdog critics sharpened their legal daggers as they made plans to challenge the rules in court.
President Obama touted net neutrality during his presidential bid and is a friend of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. He said the decision “will help preserve the free and open nature of the Internet while encouraging innovation, protecting consumer choice, and defending free speech.” Genachowski proclaimed that the vote signals “a very good day” for innovators, consumers, and the Internet’s future. “It is essential that the FCC fulfill its historic role as a cop on the beat to ensure the vitality of our communications networks and to empower and protect consumers of those networks.”
But in an effort to halt the regulations, Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, announced that she will introduce a “resolution of disapproval” under the Congressional Review Act, which gives Congress a limited amount of time after a federal agency issues a rule to review it and pass a resolution to block it. “We have an Internet that is working. It does not need the heavy hand of government,” she said during a floor speech. Asserting that Congress must take a stand, she added: “We have not delegated this authority to the FCC.”
"Today is a sad day for innovation in this country," echoed Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee. "As the rest of the world forges ahead, the United States will face a technological 'Lost Decade.'” Mocking the agency’s action, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said the FCC really stands for “Fabricating a Crisis Commission.”
Also critical was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who called net neutrality “a first step in controlling how Americans use the Internet by establishing federal regulations on its use.” He added: “This would harm investment, stifle innovation, and lead to job losses.”
On the House side, presumptive Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that bureaucrats should not be regulating the Internet. “The new House majority will work to reverse this unnecessary and harmful federal government power grab next year,” he vowed.
Prominent GOP members pledged to pursue a similar resolution to Hutchison’s and use other avenues to block the rules. In a conference call, incoming Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said his panel’s first hearing next year will be on this topic, with more sessions to follow. Upton spoke along with incoming Energy and Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore. “We are going to be exploring every option to try to reverse this order,” Upton said. The lawmakers noted that there is bipartisan opposition to the FCC’s rules.
National Journal reported earlier today that Verizon, the nation’s second-largest telecommunications carrier, may sue the FCC in an effort to overturn the rules. In a statement, the company said it was “deeply concerned” by the new framework, which it said would “yield continued uncertainty for industry, innovators, and investors.”
“Lawsuits could come from both sides: companies that feel the FCC has gone too far and entities that don’t think the FCC went far enough,” Jeff Silva, a telecom analyst with Medley Global Advisors, said in an interview. During a press conference, Genachowski said he’s confident that legal challenges would fail. “We have a legal basis for the rules we adopted today that is very strong, that gives us the authority we need, and I’m confident we’ll win in court,” he said.
The commission’s action received some qualified praise from powerful Democrats, including Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. “While many champions of the open Internet would have preferred a stricter decision—and I myself have real reservations about treating wireless broadband differently from wired broadband—I think today's decision is a meaningful step forward,” he wrote. Critics have complained that the rules are weak for wireless carriers even though Americans are fast gravitating to mobile broadband service.