With the Obama administration on the verge of embracing new “network neutrality” rules increasing government oversight of the Internet, it’s difficult to tell who objects more: Republicans who denounce the move as a federal power grab or Democrats who dismiss the reforms as too weak to do the job.
The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday holds a highly anticipated hearing on the hot-button topic, with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s compromise proposal generating passionate commentary - pro and con - in cyberspace.
Republican opposition - including the two GOP commissioners on the five-member FCC board - has intensified in recent weeks, but the Associated Press and private analysts predicted Monday that the regulations designed to prohibit phone and cable companies from discriminating against or favoring Internet traffic moving over their broadband networks will be approved.
The vote could provide one last end-of-the-year policy victory for President Obama, who campaigned in favor of net neutrality regulations in the 2008 presidential race. Despite sharp criticism from congressional Republicans, the White House on Monday urged approval of the FCC plan.
The president said Mr. Genachowski’s blueprint “constitutes an important step in preventing abuses and continuing to advance the Internet as an engine of productivity growth and innovation,” said White House spokesman Matt Vogel.
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.”
The AP reported Monday that both Democrats on the board, Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, will join Mr. Genachowski in backing the proposal, although both have expressed reservations about portions of the plan.
Mr. Copps, considered the key swing vote, has said the Genachowski proposals did not go far enough. But in a statement issued Monday, he said, “I believe we have been able to make the current iteration better than what was originally circulated. If vigilantly and vigorously implemented by the commission - and if upheld by the courts - it could represent an important milestone in the ongoing struggle to safeguard the awesome opportunity-creating power of the open Internet.”
Mr. Copps had been urged to vote down the proposal by some net neutrality supporters who say the plan does not do enough to protect consumers and is too favorable to telecommunications giants such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, which build and maintain the broadband lines over which Internet data flow.
Net neutrality backers argue that the big telecommunications firms could use their power to regulate the traffic on their lines to maximize their own profits and interests, undermining the free flow of information that has long characterized the Web.
“Broadband operators should not be given absolute discretion to block traffic based on their own private determination that it is unlawful,” a coalition of net neutrality supporters headed by the American Library Association wrote Tuesday.
Another coalition of more than 80 groups and businesses headed by Free Press, the Media Access Project and New America Foundation weighed in against the plan last week.
“If the current [plan] is adopted without substantial changes, Internet service providers will be free to engage in a number of practices that harm consumers,” the letter said.
But Republicans in Congress have vowed to block or repeal any reforms approved by the FCC, and the agency could face a strong challenge to its authority and its funding in the next Congress after huge GOP gains in the midterm elections.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, last week filed an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have blocked the FCC from adopting the net neutrality rules.
“The FCC chairman’s attempt to impose new government regulations is unnecessary government overreach that will stifle future innovation,” the senator said in a statement.
A group of 29 Republican senators, in a letter to the FCC chairman, warned the commission that the next Congress would work to repeal any rules approved at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Whether and how the Internet should be regulated is something that America’s elected representatives in Congress, not the commission, should determine,” the lawmakers warned in the letter.
Republicans see the net neutrality push - even a watered-down version - as a government power grab and a threat to the major telecommunications companies building the nation’s fast-growing broadband and smart-phone networks.
Mr. Genachowski, a Harvard-educated lawyer appointed to the FCC by the president in 2009, has said the rules would forbid major Internet broadband providers from secretly blocking or interfering with “lawful Internet traffic.”
The basic thrust of his compromise would require broadband providers to give subscribers access to all legal online content, applications and services over their wired networks - including online calling services, Internet video and other Web applications that compete with the companies’ own core businesses.
But the plan would give broadband providers flexibility to manage data on their systems to deal with problems such as network congestion and unwanted traffic such as spam, as long as they publicly disclose their network management practices.
Senior FCC officials argue that “unreasonable” network discrimination would be prohibited and noted that this category would most likely include services that favor traffic from the broadband providers themselves or traffic from business partners that can pay for priority.
The rules also would give companies the right to continue to limit access as needed to better manage the demands on their networks, and would back away from earlier plans to extend control over the mobile phone industry.
c This article is based in part on wire service reports.