GOP Senators Look to Derail FCC's Broadband Plans

Blasting what they describe as an attempt to take over the Internet, a gaggle of Republican senators has signed on to a bill that would curb the Federal Communications Commission's regulatory authority.

By Kenneth Corbin | Posted Jul 22, 2010
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Alarmed at what they see as an over-zealous regulatory affront to private industry, a group of seven Republican senators has introduced a bill to block the Federal Communications Commission from enacting network neutrality rules that would amount to a significant check on the agency's authority.

The bill, dubbed the "Freedom for Consumer Choice Act" -- or "FCC Act," in shorthand -- would codify the rallying cry long proffered by net neutrality opponents, that rules governing how ISPs manage their networks are a solution in search of a problem.

The legislation would require the FCC to demonstrate clear evidence of a market failure or harm to consumers before enacting new rules governing the transmission of Internet content.

"The FCC's rush to take over the Internet is just the latest example of the need for fundamental reform to protect consumers," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the FCC declined to comment on the bill, but the agency vigorously disputes the notion that it is trying to regulate -- let alone take over -- the Internet. The FCC instead argues that it should exercise basic oversight over Internet service providers to protect consumers and maintain competition, just as it does with broadcasters, telecom firms and other communications providers.

In that spirit, the FCC has initiated a proceeding to clarify its authority to oversee Internet service providers, a move that came in response to a major legal setback that saw a federal appeals court overturn a 2008 commission order punishing Comcast for secretly blocking traffic on its data network.

Within the agency, the commissioners are sharply divided about Chairman Julius Genachowski's proposal to reclassify broadband as a so-called "Title II" service, a designation under communications law that would give the FCC more clearly defined regulatory authority over ISPs than the current framework.

The two Republicans on the panel voted against the measure at the FCC's monthly meeting in June, while the three Democrats, including the chairman, said it was a necessary step both to protect consumers and move forward with several policy proposals included in the commission's national broadband plan.

Lawmakers took immediate notice, and many expressed alarm that the FCC was overreaching. All told, more than half of the members of Congress, including 70 Democrats, signed on to letters urging Genachowski to abandon his reclassification push.

Now, DeMint and six of his colleagues are pushing to block the commission from enacting any new rules before showing evidence of "circumstances that demonstrate the existence of a significant threat of abuse of market power that poses a substantial and nontransitory risk to consumer welfare," according to the bill.

"President Obama's handpicked FCC chairman is attempting to impose unnecessary, antiquated regulations on the Internet in spite of court rulings limiting the FCC's authority, against bipartisan congressional concern over damaging economic consequences, and without any evidence of market failure," DeMint said.

The FCC Act would also set a five-year expiration date for regulations the commission enacted unless it demonstrated through a market-based analysis that they needed to be renewed.

The bill would task the FCC with using the same measures of competition in a marketplace employed by the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice when they conduct antitrust investigations.

The bill's cosponsors are Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), John Ensign (R-Nev.), John Thune (R- S.D.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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