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Internet

Congressional Republicans propose their Net neutrality fix

A bill introduced Friday claims to protect Internet openness without reclassifying broadband as a utility. But it also guts the FCC's regulatory authority.

If passed, the GOP bill would ban broadband providers from blocking, slowing down or speeding up access to certain websites and keep broadband as a lightly regulated Title 1 service of the Communications Act.
If passed, the GOP bill would ban broadband providers from blocking, slowing down or speeding up access to certain websites and keep broadband as a lightly regulated Title 1 service of the Communications Act.

Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate introduced on Friday draft legislation they claim will protect Net neutrality without reclassifying broadband traffic as a utility. But the bill also takes rule-making power away from the Federal Communications Commission.

"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," Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (S.D.), one of the bill's authors, said in a statement.

The bill is a pre-emptive strike at FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's plan for ensuring principles of Net neutrality -- the idea that Internet providers should give equal access to content and applications, and not force content providers to pay for faster delivery. It's also a swat at President Barack Obama, who called on the FCC to regulate broadband like a utility so it "works for everyone."

Wheeler is close to circulating his final proposal to reinstate open Internet rules that were struck down by a federal court a year ago. In the new order, which will be voted on by the full FCC on February 26, the commission is expected to reclassify broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act. This change in classification has been opposed by all the big broadband and wireless service providers.

Wheeler argues that classifying broadband as a utility will give the FCC a stronger footing to withstand potential legal challenges from the industry, while broadband providers say it will stifle innovation and bring investment in their networks to a grinding halt.

The new GOP bill (PDF), being pitched as part of the ongoing effort to achieve bipartisan consensus, would essentially put into law those regulations the court struck down. It bans broadband providers from blocking, slowing down or speeding up access to certain websites and keeps broadband as a lightly regulated Title 1 service of the Communications Act.

And it explicitly states that the FCC would have no authority to regulate under section 706 of the act. That was something the court upheld in the 2012 case and was seen as a victory for the FCC.

The GOP draft bill already has its vocal critics, perhaps most acerbically Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), author of the first Net neutrality bill to be introduced in the Senate. He blasted the Republican bill as a giveaway to big broadband companies that would harm consumers and do little to protect an open Internet.

"Democrats and Republicans both agree on the need for Net neutrality protections, but this Republican proposal should be called the Big Broadband Baron Act. It is a legislative wolf in sheep's clothing, offering a select few safeguards while undermining basic consumer, privacy and accessibility protections," he said in a statement. "It would harm low-income, disabled, senior and rural consumers, and undermine competition in the telecommunications marketplace."

The advocacy group Public Knowledge also questioned how strong the law would be in practice.

"While this represents a good-faith step forward, it also takes several very real steps back from the commission's 2010 rules -- and certainly does not provide the kind of robust protection consumers need for what the president has rightly called 'the critical service of the 21st century," said Public Knowledge's Harold Feld.

The bill is scheduled to be the subject of hearings Wednesday in both the House and Senate.