Divided FCC approves ‘net neutrality’ plan

The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday approved sweeping new Internet regulations, defying Republican lawmakers and giving President Obama a victory on one of his key campaign promises.

The FCC’s three Democratic appointees, led by Chairman Julius Genachowski, joined together on the 3-2 vote to approve regulations to implement the so-called “net neutrality” plan establishing rules for access to the Web.

The regulations prohibit phone and cable companies from favoring or discriminating against Internet content and services, such as those from rivals.

The rules require broadband providers to let subscribers access all legal online content, applications and services over their wired networks —including online calling services, Internet video and other Web applications that compete with their core businesses, the Associated Press reported. But the rules give broadband providers flexibility to manage data on their systems to deal with problems such as network congestion and unwanted traffic including spam as long as they publicly disclose their network management practices.

Shrugging off GOP criticism, Mr. Obama hailed the vote in a statement released Tuesday afternoon by the White House.

“As technology and the market continue to evolve at a rapid pace, my administration will remain vigilant and see to it that innovation is allowed to flourish, that consumers are protected from abuse, and that the democratic spirit of the Internet remains intact,” the president said.

While at times arcane, the net neutrality debate at heart is about who will write and enforce the rules of the road for the information superhighway. Consumer groups and Internet-based businesses such as Netflix have complained that the big telecommunications firms have slowed or blocked access for heavy users from competitive sites to give their own movie and entertainment sites a competitive advantage.

Big telecommunications firms counter that they cannot justify huge investments in Internet infrastructure if they must offer access to all comers on basically the same terms.

Many conservative and libertarian critics also see the FCC move as a stalking horse for greater government control of content on the Web and the potential of silencing dissent. They also say the administration is pre-empting congressional action by proposing a solution where no problem exists.

Robert M. McDowell, one of the two GOP appointees on the FCC board, wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, “Nothing is broken and needs fixing.”

The rules, he wrote, “are likely to have the perverse effect of inhibiting capital investment, deferring innovation, raising operating costs, and, ultimately, increasing consumer prices.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, was one of a number of GOP lawmakers who slammed the FCC move Tuesday, calling it misguided and a usurpation of congressional prerogatives. Mr. McConnell said the move was of a piece with Obama administration efforts to extend government control over other parts of the economy, including health care, banking and automobiles.

The FCC vote “could be a first step in controlling how Americans use the Internet by establishing federal regulations on its use,” he said. “This would harm investment, stifle innovation and lead to job losses.”

But some liberal and Internet activist groups have complained that the FCC plan does not go far enough.

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