The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday rebuked President Obama for putting the FCC on a path toward broad but controversial net neutrality, calling him “an increasingly imperious president,” while promising to push substitute legislation.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., warned that the approach FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is due to unveil Feb. 5 could create uncertainty about Internet investment for years as challenges to the agency’s action make their way through the courts. Thune suggested Congress take quick action to avoid the uncertainty.
“Today with a determined, self-confident FCC chairman pushed by an increasingly imperious president we find the FCC on the brink of upending the wildly successful regulatory framework first put in place during the Clinton administration,” said Thune.
Wheeler is expected to propose that the FCC take steps to classify Internet connections as “phone related” services rather than “information services,” but to exempt Internet service providers from many of the FCC’s normal rules covering phone services. The commission is due to vote on Wheeler’s proposal on Feb. 26. As part of the changes the FCC is expected to ban “paid prioritization” for normal Internet content.
Thune made clear that the FCC’s move to reclassify the services is his biggest concern.
“I am concerned about the tone here. I think that until the president got involved in this issue in November, I’m not sure that is where the commission was,” he said of the reclassification plan. “The commission, which is supposed to be an independent agency, is hearing from the White House on this … It would be really unfortunate to have three bureaucrats at a government agency deciding the future of the Internet.”
Thune said the FCC’s move would create uncertainty as it is “vigorously litigated.”
“Why is the FCC on this desperate path? Because FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wants to have open Internet rules in place and in order to do that he feels he has no other choice but than to completely reverse the FCC policy on Internet regulation,” said Thune.
“Rather than having the FCC go down this dangerous road littered with regulatory uncertainty and unintended consequences, congress should reassert its prerogative to make policy.”
Thune said the legislation that he and House Republicans are crafting would give the FCC authority to require net neutrality but limit how far it could go.
“Legal and regulatory uncertainty about what the FCC can and will do has become a major problem for people both at the edge of the Internet and at its core,” he said. “Congress is the only entity that can settle this uncertainty. I believe we can do it in a way that ensures the agency has the tools that many believe are needed to protect the Internet while simultaneously ensuring that the agency is appropriately limited in its reach and authority.”
Thune said Senate Republicans have yet to get any Senate Democrats to support their proposal. Without Democratic support, getting a vote on the proposal in the Senate could be difficult.
Public interest groups and Democrats have criticized the Republican proposal saying it could hamstring the FCC from pursuing new threats to net neutrality and leave the agency unable to keep up with new technological developments. They also have said that the proposal’s exemption of “specialized services” from net neutrality conditions would create a loophole that could easily be used by service providers to sidestep the policy.