House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wants to give federal regulators sweeping new powers over Internet access.
The move is necessary, she said Monday, to save net neutrality and protect Internet users. But Republicans and business groups warn that applying utility-style regulations to the Internet would strangle economic growth and ultimately mean worse Internet service.
"I oppose special Internet fast lanes, only open to those firms large enough to pay big money or fraught enough to give up big stakes in their company," the California Democrat wrote in a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, urging him to classify broadband as a "telecommunications service" under Title II of the Communications Act.
Pelosi is the latest—and highest-ranking—Democrat to back the controversial regulatory maneuver. Her position puts more political pressure on Wheeler and the other commission Democrats to invoke the powers.
Supporters argue that using Title II is the only way to enact net-neutrality rules that can hold up in court. In January, a federal court struck down the old net-neutrality rules, which were based on weaker authority under Title I of the law.
Net neutrality is the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Wheeler prompted a major backlash earlier this year by proposing new rules that would allow broadband providers to charge websites for faster service in certain cases.
"Innovators prefer bright-line rules and worry the proposed rules would force them into commercial arrangements that require payment of tolls in cash or equity to get their ideas on the Internet," Pelosi wrote in her letter.
Craig Aaron, the president of advocacy group Free Press, said Pelosi's announcement "shows the serious momentum for real net neutrality."
"Chairman Wheeler can no longer claim that there's no political support for reclassifying broadband as a common carrier," Aaron said. "Clearly the more politically perilous path is digging in and defending his unworkable proposal."
Title II, which the FCC currently uses to regulate phone companies, gives the agency broad authority, including the ability to control prices and determine which customers a company has to serve. But the commission can also decide to waive any requirements under the provision.
Pelosi said that picking and choosing which regulatory requirements to impose is an "appropriate tool to refine modern rules and will prevent the FCC from overburdening broadband providers." She also argued that the provision will allow the FCC to combat fraudulent billing practices and to better protect privacy.
Virtually all Democrats support net neutrality, but only some of them have explicitly called for the FCC to reclassify Internet providers. So far, 14 senators and 37 House members have backed the controversial option.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has vowed to defend the agency's rules, but he hasn't taken a position on which regulatory provision the agency should use. President Obama has said he opposes Internet fast lanes, but has also been silent on Title II.
Republicans and broadband providers, however, have promised to do everything they can to stop the FCC from using its Title II powers on the Internet. In a May letter to the FCC, House GOP leaders warned that applying "antiquated regulation on the Internet" would "needlessly inhibit the creation of American private-sector jobs, limit economic freedom and innovation, and threaten to derail one of our economy's most vibrant sectors."
Wheeler has said he prefers to use the existing regulatory framework for new net-neutrality rules, but that Title II remains "on the table."
The FCC is collecting comments on its proposal until Sept. 15, and Wheeler has said he wants new rules on the books by the end of the year.