In Net-Neutrality Push, Democrats Aim to Make the Internet a Utility

The controversial move would give the FCC sweeping new powers over Internet providers.

 Ethernet cables lead to a server at the Rittal stand at the 2013 CeBIT technology trade fair the day before the fair opens to visitors on March 4, 2013 in Hanover, Germany.
National Journal
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Brendan Sasso
July 14, 2014, 9:42 a.m.

Sev­er­al lib­er­al law­makers want to ap­ply util­ity-style reg­u­la­tions to In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders.

Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key, a Mas­sachu­setts Demo­crat, col­lec­ted sig­na­tures for a let­ter ur­ging the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion to reg­u­late the In­ter­net like the tele­phone sys­tem.

Demo­crat­ic Sens. Chuck Schu­mer of New York and Al Franken of Min­nesota, as well as in­de­pend­ent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont, have signed on, aides con­firmed. The law­makers have planned a Tues­day morn­ing press con­fer­ence with In­ter­net ad­vocacy groups. 

In the let­ter, the sen­at­ors ar­gue that stronger au­thor­ity is ne­ces­sary to en­act net-neut­ral­ity rules that pre­vent broad­band pro­viders such as Com­cast from ma­nip­u­lat­ing traffic to fa­vor gi­ant cor­por­a­tions.

“Broad­band is a more ad­vanced tech­no­logy than phone ser­vice, but in the 21st cen­tury, it per­forms the same es­sen­tial func­tion,” the sen­at­ors write in a draft of the let­ter.

“Con­sumers and busi­nesses can­not live without this vi­tal con­nec­tion to each oth­er and to the world around them. Ac­cord­ingly, it would be ap­pro­pri­ate for the FCC to re­clas­si­fy broad­band to re­flect the vi­tal role the In­ter­net plays in car­ry­ing our most im­port­ant in­form­a­tion and our greatest ideas.”

Be­cause of a de­cision dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, the FCC cur­rently reg­u­lates broad­band In­ter­net as an “in­form­a­tion ser­vice” un­der Title I of the Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act. Re­clas­si­fy­ing broad­band as a “tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice” un­der Title II of the law would im­me­di­ately give the agency sweep­ing new powers.

The FCC en­acted net-neut­ral­ity rules in 2010 un­der the weak­er leg­al au­thor­ity, but a fed­er­al court struck them down earli­er this year. The FCC is try­ing to re­work the rules in a way that can sur­vive fu­ture court chal­lenges, but the pro­pos­al from Chair­man Tom Wheel­er has promp­ted a massive pub­lic back­lash be­cause it would al­low In­ter­net pro­viders to charge web­sites for spe­cial “fast lanes” as long as the agree­ments are “com­mer­cially reas­on­able.”

In their let­ter, the lib­er­al sen­at­ors warn that Wheel­er’s pro­pos­al “could fun­da­ment­ally al­ter the In­ter­net as we know it.”

The only way to en­act ef­fect­ive net-neut­ral­ity rules that bar on­line dis­crim­in­a­tion is to use the agency’s power un­der Title II, the sen­at­ors write.

Al­though Demo­crats have long sup­por­ted net neut­ral­ity, few have ex­pli­citly called for the FCC to re­clas­si­fy the In­ter­net un­der Title II. Thirty-sev­en House mem­bers of the Pro­gress­ive Caucus signed a let­ter sup­port­ing Title II in May, but 20 Demo­crats signed a du­el­ing let­ter op­pos­ing the op­tion.

Re­pub­lic­ans and ma­jor broad­band pro­viders have threatened a leg­al and polit­ic­al war with the FCC if it tries to re­clas­si­fy the In­ter­net.

Top Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans sent a let­ter to Wheel­er in May, warn­ing that “mono­poly-era Title II reg­u­la­tions” would stifle in­vest­ment and un­der­mine his “abil­ity to ef­fect­ively lead the FCC.” House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers fired off a sim­il­ar let­ter the fol­low­ing day.

In a blog post Monday, the Na­tion­al Cable and Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions As­so­ci­ation, the lob­by­ing group that rep­res­ents Com­cast and oth­er broad­band pro­viders, urged the FCC to re­ject the “ex­treme voices” call­ing for re­clas­si­fic­a­tion.

Util­ity-style “com­mon car­ri­er” reg­u­la­tions would “de­ter on­go­ing in­vest­ments and in­nov­a­tion” and would not even sur­vive in court, the cable group warned.

Un­der Title II, the FCC has broad reg­u­lat­ory powers, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to con­trol prices and de­term­ine which cus­tom­ers a com­pany has to serve. But the com­mis­sion can also de­cide to waive any re­quire­ments un­der the pro­vi­sion.


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