The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday that he is proposing tough new rules governing online traffic that would regulate Internet service like a public utility but modernize the oversight "for the 21st century."
The proposed net neutrality rules would prohibit broadband providers from charging websites for faster delivery of their content and from blocking or slowing any legal online content or service, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said.
The regulations would apply to wired and wireless Internet service, he said in an opinion article on Wired's website.
But the FCC would not regulate prices consumers pay to Internet service providers the way the agency does with traditional phone service.
"The Internet must be fast, fair and open. That is the message I’ve heard from consumers and innovators across this nation," Wheeler said in announcing his steps after millions of comments flooded the agency.
"That is the principle that has enabled the Internet to become an unprecedented platform for innovation and human expression," he said. "The proposal I present to the commission will ensure the Internet remains open, now and in the future, for all Americans."
Wheeler's proposal must be approved by a majority of the five-member FCC, which is scheduled to vote on it Feb. 26.
"My proposal assures the rights of Internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone's permission," Wheeler said.
Wheeler is a Democrat appointed by President Obama, and the FCC has a 3-2 Democratic majority. His fellow Democrats are expected to back the proposal, with the Republican commissioners opposing it.
One of those Republicans, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, said he opposed the proposal because it "will raise consumers’ broadband bills, slow broadband speeds, and reduce competition."
Major Internet content companies have pushed the FCC for tough net neutrality rules. But broadband providers have threatened to sue the agency if it approves utility-like regulation, arguing it is overstepping the FCC's authority.
Michael Powell, a former Republican FCC Chairman who now heads the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. trade group, said Wednesday that Wheeler's proposal would "result in a backward-looking new regulatory regime, ill-suited for the dynamic Internet, with far reaching and troubling consequences."
After a federal court tossed out the FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules last year, Wheeler initially proposed a different regulatory approach that could have allowed for some so-called paid prioritization of content.
But senior FCC officials said Wheeler concluded last summer that that approach wouldn't work and that it was possible to classify Internet service like a public utility while exempting many of the regulations that normally go along with that designation.
In November, President Obama publicly called for the FCC to take a stronger approach that would classify the Internet as a regulated utility under Title 2 of the 1996 telecommunication law.
"We're certainly encouraged to see that the FCC is heading in the same direction of safeguarding net neutrality with the strongest possible protections," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. "This is consistent with the view that the president articulated back in the fall."
Most Democrats support the tougher approach and several praised Wheeler's announcement.
"The rules will institute an absolute ban on paid Internet fast lanes, whereas the original proposal would have opened the flood gates for pay-for-play schemes," said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), one of the most outspoken net neutrality advocates in Congress. "This is the right move for the American public, and for the future of Internet."
And Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) called the proposal "a stake in the ground to protect consumers.”
But key congressional Republicans strongly oppose classifying Internet service as a public utility.
They have proposed legislation that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking websites, slowing connection speeds and charging companies for faster delivery of their content -- but without utility-like regulation.
“Chairman Wheeler’s proposal to regulate the Internet as a public utility is not about net neutrality – it is a power grab for the federal government by the chairman of a supposedly independent agency who finally succumbed to the bully tactics of political activists and the president himself," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), a co-sponsor of the GOP legislation.
"If the only objective behind the FCC’s new proposal was to protect an open Internet and establish net neutrality rules, we could accomplish that through bipartisan legislation and avoid the years of uncertainty and litigation created by Chairman Wheeler’s radical proposal," Thune said.
Wheeler says in the Wired article that he believes the FCC has the power to reclassify Internet service as a regulated utility.
"The Congress gave the FCC broad authority to update its rules to reflect changes in technology and marketplace behavior in a way that protects consumers," he said. "Over the years, the commission has used this authority to the public's great benefit."
He argues that the Internet wouldn't have developed if the FCC had not mandated open access for network equipment in the late 1960s.
Broadband companies and Republican opponents of utility-like regulation said it was meant for railroads and phone companies, not the fast-evolving Internet.
Wheeler said Wednesday he would modernize the utility regulations so they would not squelch investment in broadband networks. For example, he said the FCC would not impose rate regulation or tariffs on Internet service.
The regulations "will be strong enough and flexible enough not only to deal with the realities of today, but also to establish ground rules for the as-yet unimagined."
Senior FCC officials said it would be a light-touch approach similar to the one used for years on mobile voice calling, which has not squelched investment in wireless networks.
Unlike the FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules, which mostly exempted wireless Internet service, Wheeler's proposal would treat all consumer online activity the same.
Wireless would be covered the same as wired connections because a majority of Americans now go online via mobile devices, senior FCC officials said.
The proposed rules also, for the first-time, would give the FCC authority to mediate disputes between broadband providers and companies such as Netflix in their exchange of traffic over the Internet.
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