Attracting immediate fire from congressional Republicans, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday outlined a modified “net neutrality” plan that would expand the federal government’s power to regulate traffic over the Internet.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, President Obama’s pick to head the agency, said he was pushing for an FCC board vote later this month on his proposal - before the next Congress is seated with a GOP majority in the House and an expanded Republican minority in the Senate.
The chairman’s modified proposal was seen as decidedly more friendly to business interests than a proposal he outlined in October 2009, but Republicans on Wednesday were already promising oversight hearings and legislative action early next year if the Obama administration endorsed it.
Critics see the net neutrality push - even a watered-down version - as a government power grab and a threat to the major telecommunications companies such as Comcast and Verizon who are building the nation’s fast-growing broadband and smart-phone networks.
“If last month’s election told us anything, it’s that Americans are exasperated by the explosive growth of government, and the higher taxes and burdensome regulations that come with it,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican set to be House majority leader in the new Congress.
“Imposing net neutrality requirements would significantly harm a key industry by shackling it with unnecessary and anti-competitive regulations at a time when we can least afford it,” Mr. Cantor added.
Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is pushing a bill that would give Congress sole oversight of the Internet, predicted any action taken by the FCC would be undone.
“Chairman Genachowski has little if any congressional support for net neutrality. He can expect this folly to be resolutely overturned in the new year,” she said.
Mr. Genachowski’s bid for a compromise earned him an attack from the left as well on Wednesday.
The liberal Daily Kos website called the plan a “giveaway” of the Internet and headlined its coverage, “FCC chairman won’t stand up to Comcast, proposes garbage net neutrality.”
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 like 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.
President Obama, who campaigned on a promise to create a more consumer-friendly net neutrality policy, appointed Mr. Genachowski to the FCC in 2009, but the Harvard-educated lawyer’s months of pushing for reforms have been stymied by opposition in the industry, Congress and courts.
Mr. Genachowski said Wednesday his proposal would forbid major Internet broadband providers from secretly blocking or interfering with “lawful Internet traffic.”
But in a concession to broadband providers, the chairman’s new proposal, which will go before the rest of the commission on Dec. 21, would allow the industry to continue to charge higher rates for higher levels of access and gives the companies the right to continue to limit access as needed to better manage the demands on their networks.
The proposed new regulations also backed away from earlier plans to extend control over the mobile phone industry.
Republicans had warned the FCC and the administration not to move forward with new regulatory efforts before the new Congress is seated in January, but Mr. Genachowski defended the timing.
“Moving this item to a vote is not designed to preclude action by Congress,” he said.
There’s no guarantee the five-member FCC board will approve the changes, despite the Democrats’ current 3-to-2 edge. Democrats on the commission have traditionally been strong supporters of the net neutrality concept and may view the new proposal as too much of a compromise.
In another move that federal regulators said would make the Internet more consumer-friendly, the Federal Trade Commission announced a plan to create the online equivalent of the “Do Not Call” list.
The proposal, also announced Wednesday, would allow consumers to control how and whether companies can track their online activities.