- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On the eve of an intensely anticipated Federal Communications Commission’s vote Thursday on federal regulation of the Internet, congressional Republicans said they were not giving up the fight if the agency gives a strong endorsement of “net neutrality.”

Critics used a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday to air one last time their fears that the rules being fashioned by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler were an unneeded intrusion into the workings of the Web, an effort by the Obama administration to set the rules of the road for Internet traffic in the future.

“Tomorrow’s commission vote does not signal the end of this debate. Rather, it is just the beginning,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, said at a hearing Wednesday. “This vote brings with it a host of consequences that have the potential to disrupt the Internet we have come to know and rely on.”

Mr. Wheeler’s 300-page-plus blueprint, to be made public at a Thursday FCC meeting, is expected to propose regulating the major Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon under the same laws and regulations that once governed landline telephone companies as public utilities. The shift would be a major step up from the current regime, where the big telecommunications companies are considered providers of “information services” and subject to very little federal oversight.

Supporters of net neutrality say the new rules are needed to keep the big providers from discriminating among users and creating “fast lanes” and better service for deep-pocketed users willing to pay the fare. Critics say there is little evidence of any problem or discrimination under the current system and, Republicans argue, it should be Congress and not the FCC that sets such basic policies.

Republican lawmakers slammed the decision by Mr. Wheeler to decline invitations to testify on the eve of the FCC vote.

“So long as the chairman continues to insist on secrecy, we will continue calling for more transparency and accountability at the commission,” Mr. Upton and House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, said in a joint statement. “Chairman Wheeler and the FCC are not above Congress. This fight continues as the future of the Internet is at stake.”

Rick Boucher, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia who now heads the Internet Innovation Alliance, agreed that the FCC’s regulatory approach was a “blunt instrument” for ensuring net neutrality.

Legislation from Congress “is the superior solution,” he said.

“That is true for those of us who strongly support network neutrality guarantees. It’s virtually impenetrable to judicial challenge and would resolve the debate with statutory permanence that is simply not available through the regulatory and administrative process,” Mr. Boucher said.

But Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat, questioned the need for the last-minute Hill hearings, and accused GOP lawmakers of “obsessing” over the net neutrality issue instead of dealing with other important issues.

Testify before the Energy and Commerce Committee, Gene Kimmelman, president of the public interest group Public Knowledge, defended the need for the government to step in to ensure fairness and open access on the Web. He warned lawmakers against trying to undo the FCC’s net neutrality push.

“If Congress intends to remove this option, it needs to provide the FCC with an equally flexible tool to replace [the regulatory option] and preserve open Internet and basic network compact protections.”

Despite vows from Verizon, AT&T and Comcast to sue over the rules, the FCC is expected to vote along with partisan lines 3-2 to approve Mr. Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal.

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