Lawmakers Tuesday expressed deep concern about the new “net neutrality” program advanced by the Federal Communications Commission, telling FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in an oversight hearing that the panel’s effort to oversee Internet traffic rules is heading into “rough waters.”
Mr. Wheeler was called to testify before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the panel’s subcommittee on communications and technology on Tuesday.
The hearing came just days after a divided FCC approved Mr. Wheeler’s modified net neutrality proposal, which some critics fear could create a two-tiered Internet in which big users willing to pay a premium get faster and better connections.
Committee members told Mr. Wheeler that they were wary of the FCC’s latest rule proposals, saying the new rules could change the wide-open character of the Internet.
“The Internet has flourished under the current light-touch regulatory scheme, and subjecting it to burdensome regulations is a leap in the wrong direction,” said committee Chairman Fred Upton, Michigan Republican.
“Given some of the most recent actions out of the commission, I fear that we may be headed into some rough waters,” said Representative Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the subcommittee.
Mr. Walden noted that even the smallest change to the FCC’s rules on Internet regulation could have a huge impact on the consumer market and expressed concern over the agency’s “selective inaction.”
Many Republicans believe the Obama administration should drop any attempt to regulate the Internet, saying it has flourished largely free of government oversight.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, California Democrat, warned against the creation of Internet “fast lanes” arising as a result of the FCC’s proposed new rule.
“I don’t want this to become an auction, selling off the best in bits and pieces where some pay for faster lanes, while other cannot pay and get stuck in the slow lane,” Ms. Eshoo said. That, she said, would “unravel the values that have been the hallmark and the bulwark of the Internet.”
As he did last week, Mr. Wheeler denied the FCC had any interest in creating a new system of haves and have-nots for the Internet.
“I’ve consistently said that there is only one Internet, there is not a fast Internet and a slow Internet,” he said. “When the consumers buys access to the Internet, they are buying access to the full Internet and that’s what our rules attempt to protect.”
Technically, the FCC last week voted to seek public comment on a plan to reclassify the large broadband Internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon as “utilities” under federal law, making them subject to the same monitoring and oversight given to the telephone companies under longstanding federal law.
The FCC is also wrestling with what authority it can exercise over “paid prioritization” — whether big Internet users such as Netflix and Google could get faster connection from the service providers by paying a premium.
Internet advocacy groups have warned that could undermine the democratic spirit of the Internet, and hurt start-up competitors who can’t afford to pay for premium connections.
“If this concept moves forward, we could inadvertently block the next Google or Amazon from the market without even knowing it,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, California Democrat.
The net neutrality debate has sparked angry debate and extensive lobbying from both camps as the FCC struggles to determine its jurisdiction and settle on a single policy.
Mr. Wheeler told Tuesday’s hearing there are currently no regulations to enforce an open Internet and said the FCC’s move was focused on what regulations would best suit consumers.
However, some of the committee members said the proposed reclassification could not apply to modern-day broadband companies.
Such a policy would be “an extreme exercise of government overreach and would result in website failures,” said Rep. Bob Latta, Ohio Republican, adding he intends to introduce legislation to prevent the agency from “following through on this misguided regulation plan.”
Several lawmakers also called for oversight hearings into the latest megamergers between providers, warning major deals announced in recent weeks could have a negative impact on competition in cable television and other telecommunications industries.
“Can anyone here piece together the effects of a Comcast-Time Warner merger and an AT&T-DirectTV merger on consumers and on the Internet?” Ms. Eshoo asked.