Two leading Republicans, seeking to head off the nation's top telecom regulator, proposed legislation that would set the rules of the road for Internet traffic.
Sen. John Thune and Rep. Fred Upton said Friday that they wanted to ensure that broadband providers remain neutral in allowing legal content to flow freely over their networks. It would prohibit them from blocking websites, slowing connection speeds and charging companies for faster delivery of their content.
But perhaps most notably, the draft legislation addressing so-called net neutrality would not subject Internet service providers to utility-like regulation that covers telephone companies, a move the Federal Communications Commission is considering at the strong urging of President Obama.
Moreover, the proposal would limit the agency's authority to deal with other Internet traffic issues, tying its hands as the technology continues to evolve.
"By turning the FCC away from a heavy-handed and messy approach to regulating the Internet, this draft protects both consumers who rely on Internet services and innovators who create jobs," said Thune, of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
The committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Upton of Michigan, oversee the FCC, and each has scheduled a hearing on the legislation next week.
The proposal did not appease net neutrality advocates, who have been pushing the FCC to be more aggressive in policing the Internet.
"While this is designed to look good on the surface, it really has quite a straight-jacket effect on what the FCC can do," said Matt Wood, policy director of Free Press, a public interest group.
Four Democratic senators who have been active on the issue — Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — said they were thankful that Republicans finally acknowledged the need for net neutrality rules.
The proposal, though, fell short, they said.
"We stand ready and willing to work with our Republican colleagues, but unfortunately, the bill as currently drafted would dramatically undermine the FCC's vital role in protecting consumers and small businesses online by limiting its enforcement and rule-making authorities in this critically important area," they said.
They urged the FCC to act "without delay" on its own rules. And a senior White House official said legislation was not needed because the FCC already had the authority to impose new rules if it reclassifies broadband providers under utility-like regulation.
Most Republicans have resisted net neutrality legislation in the past, arguing it was a solution in search of a problem because there was no evidence of widespread discrimination by Internet service providers.
But GOP leaders are concerned the Democrat-controlled FCC is planning to adopt aggressive new net neutrality regulations.
Last week, FCC Chairman Thomas E. Wheeler, who was appointed by Obama, strongly hinted that he planned to propose subjecting Internet service providers to a part of telecommunications law that allows for utility-like regulation.
A federal appeals court last year suggested such a route in rejecting a second time the agency's net neutrality rules. Major broadband providers such as AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. strongly oppose that approach.
In a surprising move, however, Sprint Corp. wrote to Wheeler on Thursday saying that if the FCC's utility-like approach were undertaken with "a light touch," it would not harm "continued investment in, and deployment of, mobile broadband services."
Wheeler plans to release his proposal Feb. 5 in preparation for a commission vote three weeks later. Thune and Upton said they hoped to work with him in revising the legislation.
Wheeler "will continue to engage with Congress" but will not delay his timetable, FCC spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said.
"Chairman Wheeler shares the goals of protecting and preserving an open Internet," she said. "Next month, the commission will consider strong rules to protect consumers, innovation and competition online."
Thune and Upton hope to preempt the FCC's action with their legislation, which they said would provide more certainty to consumers, Internet entrepreneurs and broadband providers. It would apply to wired and wireless Internet service.
A key reason net neutrality advocates have pushed for the utility-like approach is because federal courts twice have thrown out FCC rules, arguing the agency did not have authority to enact Internet regulations under another provision of the telecommunication law.
The proposed legislation would specifically grant the FCC that authority to deal with potential problems Obama specifically outlined in November.
Obama called then for the FCC to take the utility-like approach so it could prohibit broadband providers from blocking legal websites, charging for priority delivery of content or intentionally slowing or speeding up access.
Republicans supporting the new draft legislation, however, said it was better if Congress acted.
"By acting legislatively, we are putting forward a fresh, sustainable solution that accomplishes the goals we all share without the needless trips to court that would jeopardize these core principles," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), another supporter of the bill who chairs a key House technology subcommittee.
AT&T said it was encouraged by the legislation.
"We've long felt this is an issue best addressed by Congress," said Tim McKone, the company's executive vice president for federal relations. "Investors and consumers need certainty, not years of litigation and possibly higher monthly bills."
But consumers, who have flooded the FCC in recent months with comments supporting net neutrality, would be in worse shape under the legislation, public interest groups said.
Practices not specifically prohibited would be allowed under the legislation. And the bill would take away the FCC's authority to make any new regulations in the fast-changing broadband marketplace.
Harold Feld, senior vice president of digital rights group Public Knowledge said "the broad language of this draft guts the FCC's authority over the network on which all of critical communications now ride."