(Update: 6 p.m.) Facing fierce congressional opposition, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has scheduled a vote on a comprehensive new net neutrality plan for Dec. 21.
The FCC chairman has for months been advocating measures to preserve an open internet, despite getting pushback from service providers who want the right to institute premium services for consumers.
By embracing net neutrality, Genachowski also sets the stage for future legal challenges. Last summer the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC, which can regulate broadcast TV and telephone landlines, doesn’t have the authority to regulate the internet.
In the wake of that setback, Genachowski had floated the possibility of skirting the court ruling by reclassifying the internet as a phone service. However, Wednesday's new "rules of the road" do not redefine the internet in that way.
What is now proposed represents a compromise measure of sorts. One that received only a measured endorsement from consumer groups who believe the regulations may not move fully forward, and the half-hearted support from corporate interests who still fear that stricter measures may be forthcoming.
In a statement he issued on Wednesday, Genachowski explained his reasons for pushing ahead:
"Consumers and innovators have a right to know basic information about broadband service, like how networks are being managed." He added, "The proposed framework would prohibit the blocking of lawful content, apps, services, and the connection of non-harmful devices to the network.
Genachowski said: "Consumers and innovators have a right to a level playing field. No central authority, public or private, should have the power to pick which ideas or companies win or lose on the Internet
The plan builds upon one by Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who in September backed down from it because of a lack of Republican support.
Waxman's compromise would have barred the FCC from regulating the internet as a phone service and set guidelines for online broadband. It would have established lighter restrictions for wireless.
Genachowski has the support of two Democratic FCC commissioners, but the two Republican commissioners issued statements on Wednesday opposing the proposal.
A vote this month would allow the FCC to set internet openness rules before Congress returns to session next year. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said Wednesday that his proposal has "broad support." He also emphasized that the commission's rules do not prevent additional congressional action.
Those statements, coupled with a decision not to designate the Internet as a phone service, signals a broader concern that the FCC lacks the legal mandate to impose such sweeping reforms. They also appease phone companies and internet service providers that the FCC could eventually use internet rules to regulate other industries.
House Republicans have vowed to oppose any requirements forcing Internet providers to treat all web traffic equally.
There was also blowback from Republican members of the commission, who argued that responsibility for internet rules lies with congress.
"We do not have authority to act," Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker said in a statement. "The American people seek sensible consensus-driven solutions, not more big government intervention."
Even those on the left side of the political spectrum were critical of the commissioner's proposal.
"You can call any policy Net Neutrality, but the devil is always in the details — and right now the details look grim," Free Press President and CEO Josh Silver said in a statement.
Yet Genachowski maintained the plan has received the support of internet and technology companies, consumer groups, unions, civil rights organizations, and broadband providers. But much of the industry support has been conditional. AT&T is in favor of limiting any new regulations to two years. The telecommunications giant has asked the FCC to use the Waxman proposal as a basis.
"While any final statement of position by AT&T must await a careful reading of the actual order and rules when issued, we are pleased that the FCC appears to be embracing a compromise solution that is sensitive to the dynamics of investment in a difficult economy and appears to avoid over-regulation," AT&T said in a statement.
The cable industry trade group the National Cable and Telecommunications Association offered tentative support for the plan.
"While not perfect from our point of view and in the absence of further action by Congres, we believe that it is a fair resolution of this set of issues and that it is proposed in a way that achieves our essential and shared objectives: preserving the openness of the Internet and incentives to invest and innovate for the benefit of consumers," president and CEO Kyle McSlarrow said in a statement.
The plan calls for transparency in the management of broadband networks, and would prohibit the blocking of lawful content, apps, and services. It would also bar any public or private authority from "unreasonable discrimination in transmitting lawful network traffic, Genachowski said.
Genachowski has, in the past, put the blame for stalling net neutrality rules at the feet of Verizon and Google, which have reached a separate agreement on rules governing web traffic.
In its public remarks following Genachowski's announcement, Verizon suggested that new regulations were not the FCC's to make.
"In tackling this issue, the FCC is hamstrung by an antiquated communications statute. That’s why this issue should be addressed by Congress. Verizon has consistently called on Congress to update and reform the statute and adopt public policies that will encourage an open Internet, as well as promote investment and innovation across the Internet marketplace," Verizon said in a statement.
The net neutrality debate could delay the FCC's review of Comcast Corp.'s plan to take over NBC Universal, because the other four commissioners besides Genachowski may have trouble dealing with both issues at once, The Wall Street Journal reported.
On Tuesday, U.S. Senators John Kerry (D-Mass), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter urging the Federal Communications Commission to establish a plan by the end of the year for mandating net neutrality.