The Federal Communications Commission is misleading the public about its 332-page plan to regulate the Internet, a Republican member of the commission said Tuesday.
The net-neutrality plan could in fact open the door to new fees and taxes, as well as government control over the prices that Internet providers charge their customers, Commissioner Ajit Pai told reporters.
The claims echo attacks from Republicans on Capitol Hill, who are also scrambling to thwart the new regulations. Committees in the House and Senate have launched investigations into whether President Obama inappropriately influenced the FCC’s decision, and Republican lawmakers are working on their own alternative net-neutrality legislation to override FCC action.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who unveiled his plan last week, has denied that it would impose new fees or regulate prices. But it’s difficult to determine who is right, because the commission won’t release the actual text of the regulations until after it approves them on Feb. 26.
“I believe the public has a right to know what its government is doing, particularly when it comes to something as important as Internet regulation,” Pai, one of two Republicans on the five-member commission, said. “I have studied the 332-page plan in detail, and it is worse than I had imagined.”
Pai said he would like to release the document himself, but that only the commission chairman has that authority. Wheeler has refused to release the draft rules, saying it would violate long-standing FCC procedures. It’s not even clear how much leeway Pai has to publicly discuss the draft, but he argued that he has an obligation to “correct the record.”
The Republican commissioner acknowledged that the actual regulations take up just eight pages of the document. But he insisted that another 79 pages are citations of the Communications Act, which will also dictate the practices of broadband providers. The rest of the document is a summary of public feedback and reasoning for the FCC’s decision, which Pai said is “sprinkled” with unofficial rules.
Wheeler has said his plan will declare broadband a “telecommunications service” under Title II of the Communications Act, which will give his agency broad new powers. Internet activists claim the move is the only way the FCC can enact real net-neutrality protections that can hold up in court. Obama endorsed the option last November, urging the FCC to approve the “strongest possible” net neutrality rules to ensure providers can’t block or intentionally slow down traffic.
Wheeler has said he favors a “modernized” version of Title II that would waive price controls and other unnecessary provisions. The FCC has long used the title, which was first enacted in 1934, to regulate phone companies.
But Pai insisted that by invoking Title II, the FCC is giving itself the authority to determine whether a variety of practices—including prices—are “just and reasonable.”
“The claim that President Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet does not include rate regulation is flat-out false,” Pai said. “Indeed, the only limit on the FCC’s discretion to regulate rates is its own determination of whether rates are ‘just and reasonable,’ which isn’t much of a restriction at all.”
Kim Hart, a spokeswoman for Wheeler, said the proposal “will not regulate the prices broadband service providers charge their customers.” She noted that the FCC has classified the voice services of cell phone companies under Title II for two decades without ever trying to regulate their prices.
Pai also warned that the rules could eventually lead to new government fees on Internet service. Consumers already have to pay an FCC fee on their monthly phone bills to support a fund that subsidizes phone and Internet service around the country.
Wheeler has said his plan won’t impose those fees on Internet service. But Pai said the document explicitly leaves the door open to changing that decision in the future. That could eventually mean billions of dollars in new fees, he warned.
Overall, the plan will give the FCC the “power to micromanage virtually every aspect of how the Internet works,” Pai said.
Public Knowledge, a consumer-advocacy group that supports net neutrality, called Pai’s press conference an “elitist insult to the American people.”
“Chairman Wheeler’s proposed order reflects the demands of the American people, and Chairman Wheeler should be applauded as a hero for being the people’s champion for an open, fast, and fair Internet,” Harold Feld, Public Knowledge’s senior vice president, said in a statement.
Two net-neutrality protesters began shouting at Pai during his press conference, claiming that most Republican voters support net neutrality. Security guards dragged the protesters out of the room.