Neutrality on Net, but not in sphere of politics

FCC rules set off wide fury

Setting the stage for a likely court battle and a showdown with Republicans in the new Congress, a sharply divided Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday approved sweeping Internet regulations designed to promote “net neutrality” and deliver on a key campaign promise of President Obama.

In a 3-2 vote split along party lines, the FCC board approved Chairman Julius Genachowski’s plan to establish enforceable rules of the road for the Web, with regulations that prohibit phone and cable companies from favoring or discriminating against Internet content and services, including those from its commercial rivals.

The panel’s three Democratic appointees supported the measure, while the two GOP nominees were opposed.

The vote drew fire from all sides. Republican congressional leaders called the move a federal power grab and vowed to take the FCC to task when the 112th Congress convenes. Supporters of net neutrality said the regulations were “watered down” and “loophole-ridden.”

The rules were created with input from telecommunications giants such as AT&T.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, said she plans to introduce a “resolution of disapproval” to try to overturn what she called “troubling regulatory overreach by the FCC.”

House Republicans, who take control of the chamber in January, vowed that hearings on a proposed repeal of the FCC’s action will be at the very top of the agenda, according to incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, Michigan Republican.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, compared the FCC action to what he said were other examples of government overreach by the Obama administration.

“The Obama administration, which has already nationalized health care, the auto industry, insurance companies, banks and student loans, will move forward with what 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.”

Shrugging off criticism from allies and opponents, Mr. Obama hailed the vote in a statement released 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.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, also issued a statement praising the FCC move.

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 telecommunications giants slow or block access for heavy users from competitive sites to give their own movie and entertainment sites a competitive advantage. But major telecommunications firms such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon 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.

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