Congressional Republicans unveil net neutrality bill to sidestep FCC

Republican net neutrality bill would ban Internet providers from charging for faster delivery of content

Two leading congressional Republicans on Friday unveiled legislation to protect so-called net neutrality by prohibiting Internet service providers from charging companies for faster delivery of their content.

The bill, which would apply to wired and wireless service, also would prohibit broadband companies from blocking lawful websites or slowing connection speeds for customers.

Most notably, the draft legislation would not subject Internet service providers to utility-like regulation, a move the Federal Communications Commission is considering at the strong urging of President Obama.

"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 Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.)

Thune took over the powerful chairmanship this month when Republicans gained control of the Senate. He is teaming on the bill with Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Those committees oversee the FCC. Republicans have resisted net neutrality legislation in the past, arguing it was a solution in search of a problem because there was no evidence Internet service providers were discriminating against content on their networks.

But congressional Republicans are concerned the FCC is planning to take aggressive steps to enact new net neutrality regulations.

Last week, FCC Chairman Thomas E. Wheeler, who was appointed by Obama, strongly hinted he planned to propose to enforce net neutrality restrictions by subjecting Internet service providers to a part of telecommunications law that allows for utility-like regulation.

Major broadband providers such as AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. oppose that approach.

Wheeler plans to release his proposal on Feb. 5 in preparation for a commission vote three weeks later. An FCC spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thune and Upton want to short-circuit that process by moving forward with legislation that would supersede FCC action.

"By clearly outlining the appropriate rules of the road and leaving 20th-century utility regulation behind, we can be sure that innovators continue full throttle in bringing remarkable new technologies to all Americans," Upton said.

A key reason net neutrality advocates have pushed for the tougher approach is because federal courts twice have thrown out FCC rules, arguing the agency did not have authority to enact the regulations under another provision of the telecommunication law.

The new legislation would specifically grant the FCC that authority.

Thune and Upton said the legislation would avoid long court battles and they hope to get bipartisan support. They labeled the bill a draft, which implies they are open to changes.

Both committees will hold hearings on the bill next week.

But it's unclear how many Democrats would back it. And any bill would have to be signed by Obama, who came out forcefully for tough rules in November.

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