Hoping to advance his net neutrality bill, a top Senate Republican called the Federal Communications Commission "a potentially threatening and unpredictable agency" because it used decades-old authority to adopt new rules ensuring the free flow of content over the Internet.
Congress should enshrine those rules in law to give broadband providers certainty and grant the FCC specific power to police the Internet while avoiding heavy-handed government regulation, said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.).
"I believe there should be clear rules for the digital road with clear authority for the FCC to enforce them," Thune told all five commissioners during a hearing Wednesday.
Thune and his fellow Republicans criticized FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and the agency's other two Democrats for their 3-2 vote last month to reclassify broadband as a more highly regulated telecommunications service, which gave the agency more explicit authority to enact the net neutrality regulations.
"Rather than exercising regulatory humility, the three majority commissioners chose to take the most radical, polarizing and partisan path possible," Thune said. "Simply put, your actions jeopardize the open Internet that we are all seeking to protect."
The FCC's regulations prohibit broadband providers from blocking, slowing or selling faster delivery of legal content flowing through their networks.
Thune and two leading House Republicans have proposed net neutrality legislation that would include those prohibitions but limit the FCC's authority to deal with future broadband problems.
Many Democrats oppose those limitations on the FCC's power, and President Obama would be unlikely to sign such legislation.
Thune admitted that the draft bill is "not perfect." But he said a legislative solution to net neutrality is preferable to the FCC using authority that dates to the 1934 Communications Act and was designed for monopoly telephone service.
Thune told the FCC Democrats that "the Internet is not the telephone network, and you cannot apply the old rules of telecom to the new world of the Internet."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the committee's top Democrat, said he was willing to work with Republicans on net neutrality legislation as long as it ensured the authority contained in the FCC's new regulations.
"I remain open to a truly bipartisan congressional action provided that such action fully protects consumers, does not undercut the FCC's role and leaves the agency with flexible, forward-looking authority to respond to the changes in this dynamic broadband marketplace," he said.
Wheeler defended the FCC's net neutrality regulations. And Democrats applauded the agency's action.
"What these rules do, plain and simple, is keep broadband providers from discriminating," said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Republicans have warned that broadband rate regulation now is possible because the FCC reclassified broadband under Title 2 of the Communications Act, which closely regulates utilities.
Wheeler said that the net neutrality rules specifically avoid rate regulation.
But Ajit Pai, one of the two Republicans on the FCC who opposed the rules, said the agency now would need to respond to complaints about prices that are not just and reasonable.
"The Internet is not broken. The FCC didn't need to fix it," Pai said.
And Thune said he was worried the door was open to heavy-handed government oversight of the Internet.
"I'd have a hard time explaining how that adjudicatory process would not be rate regulation," Thune said.