The head of the Federal Communications Commission said the agency has the power to impose new rules on Internet service providers in a move that lays the groundwork for “net neutrality” - a politically contentious proposal that bars providers from giving preference to some of the content flowing over their networks.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski pitched his approach Thursday as a middle ground that would “preserve the Internet as a powerful platform for innovation, free speech and job creation.” But the agency’s two Republicans said it goes well beyond the powers Congress has granted the commission and will leave businesses confused.
“It is neither a light-touch approach, nor a third way. Instead, it is a stark departure from the long-established bipartisan framework for addressing broadband regulation that has led to billions in investment and untold consumer opportunities,” Republican Commissioners Robert M. McDowell and Meredith A. Baker said in a joint statement.
Supporters of net neutrality said they hope Thursday’s move is the first step toward FCC regulation preventing Internet service providers from slowing down certain types of Web applications.
Mr. Genachowski announced his plan weeks after the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dealt the commission a huge blow by tossing out an order against Comcast Corp. on the grounds that the agency lacked the power to tell the cable firm how to manage its Web traffic. Undermining a marquee priority of the Obama administration’s FCC, that ruling set off a political firestorm among Democrats and left-leaning activists who argue that “rules of the road” are necessary to prevent Internet service providers from prioritizing access to certain Web applications over others.
Responding to the decision Thursday, Mr. Genachowski, one of three Democrats on the five-member agency, said the commission should retool the way it classifies Internet services under the major statute from which it draws its authority. For years, the Internet has been classified as an “information service” and largely unregulated, unlike “common carrier” services, which - under rules dating back to the 1930s - subject the telephone industry to an extensive regulatory scheme.
The new approach would shift Internet services under the mantle of common carriers, but Mr. Genachowski said the commission would apply only a handful of those provisions to network providers and renounce its authority over the rest.
The decision added fuel to an already intense political fight, with lawmakers dividing along party lines.
“I have argued that under existing law the commission can and should find that it has the authority to write and enforce rules protecting consumers, the open Internet, and competition in the transmission of Internet communications through the wires and over the air. This change of classification is a moderate, pragmatic step necessary to ensure that the FCC can keep faith with its core mission,” said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and head of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on communications, technology and the Internet.
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner called the move a “government takeover of the Internet.”
“The success of the Internet is a perfect example of what happens when entrepreneurship and innovation are allowed to flourish, but todays decision will undermine its success and hurt our economy,” the Ohio Republican said.
Businesses also are divided. While Internet giants like Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. have been lobbying hard in favor of net neutrality rules, service providers have vehemently opposed them.
“We believe that the chairmans stated approach is legally unsupported. The regulatory and judicial proceedings that will ensue can only bring confusion and delay to the important work of continuing to build the nations broadband future,” said Tom Tauke, executive vice president of Verizon, which has been challenging cable companies with its high-speed FiOS service.
At the other end of the spectrum, left-leaning media activists who have long been calling for the FCC to intervene said Mr. Genachowski’s proposal would prevent Internet service providers from picking winners and losers, as Comcast was accused of doing to users of BitTorrent, a bandwidth-heavy file-sharing service.
Josh Silver, president of the nonprofit Free Press, lauded the commission for “charting a path toward a sensible broadband policy framework that will protect consumers and promote universal access.”