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
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.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4950) }}

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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