FCC Chief Dances and Dodges on Plan for Internet 'Fast Lanes'

Tom Wheeler defends his net-neutrality proposal.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies before the Communications and Technology Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 20, 2014. (National Journal)

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler didn't have many friends at a House hearing Tuesday.

Republicans accused him of trying to stifle the Internet with unnecessary regulations, while Democrats warned that his net-neutrality proposal could distort the Internet in favor of the largest corporations.

Wheeler was putting it mildly when he said he has taken "a lot of heat" over the issue.

"Given some of the most recent actions out of the commission, I fear that we may be heading into rough waters," said Rep. Greg Walden, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology Subcommittee, which held the hearing.

Last week, the FCC voted to move ahead with a net-neutrality proposal that would limit the ability of broadband providers to tamper with Internet traffic. The proposal would bar providers like Comcast from blocking websites, but they could charge websites for faster service as long as the arrangements are "commercially reasonable."

Wheeler is trying to rewrite the net-neutrality regulations after a federal appeals court struck down the old (stronger) rules earlier this year. The commission is now accepting comments on its proposal and will have to vote again in several months to enact final regulations.

Wheeler's proposal has outraged many liberals, who argue that "fast lanes" would allow Internet providers to extort "tolls" and stifle innovative start-ups that can't afford to pay. Activists camped outside the FCC last week, demanding that Wheeler enact stronger net-neutrality rules.

"I support a ban on paid prioritization deals," Rep. Doris Matsui, a California Democrat, said. "We can't afford a two-tiered Internet system."

She warned that if Wheeler's proposal moves forward, it could "inadvertently block the next Google or Amazon from the market without evening knowing it."

"Paid prioritization represents a fundamental departure form the Internet as we know it," warned California Rep. Anna Eshoo, the subcommittee's top Democrat. She pressed Wheeler to explicitly state whether he would would ban paid-prioritization of Internet traffic.

"I don't believe there ought to be haves and have-nots," Wheeler began before Eshoo cut him off. "No, no — just answer my question. Just tell me."

Wheeler explained that his proposal would at least block deals that are bad for competition or consumers.

He tried to allay the Democrats' concerns, stating repeatedly he wants to protect the openness of the Internet.

"There is not a fast Internet and a slow Internet. There is one Internet," he said. "When a consumer is buying access to the Internet, they are buying access to the full Internet."

He promised he wouldn't allow providers to degrade service in order to make fast lanes more appealing. The commission has also asked for input on whether it should try to ban pay-for-priority outright.

But Wheeler is in a tough spot legally. When the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the old rules, it said the commission had gone too far by trying to cut off all pay-for-priority deals.

Using the current legal authority, the FCC essentially must allow at least some "fast lanes" or its rules will just get thrown out again.

"I am concerned your hands may be tied here," Matsui said. "Even if the commission wanted to ban anti-competitive paid-priority deals, you may not have the authority or the tools to do so."

Liberal advocacy groups are urging the FCC to rely on a stronger legal authority. The FCC could reclassify broadband Internet as a "common carrier" utility under Title II of the Communications Act — the authority it currently uses to regulate telephone service. The move would grant the FCC sweeping new legal powers, including the ability to enact stronger net-neutrality rules.

Wheeler's proposal relies on the existing authority but asks for comment on whether the commission should reclassify broadband under Title II. Some Democrats said Tuesday that they're happy Wheeler is still open to the option but few have explicitly called for him to use Title II.

Republicans, on the other hand, made it clear they would use all their power to try to block the FCC from applying utility regulations to the Internet.

Rep. Fred Upton, the chairman of the full committee, said Title II would impose "burdensome regulations" that are "inappropriate for the Internet."

"Nobody wants telephone service to look like it did in 1984, and we certainly shouldn't wish for our Internet access to return to that rotary-phone era either," Upton said.

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