Republican FCC commissioners: Net neutrality plan misleads the American people

Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission and in Congress question the White House's influence over the agency, and claim dire consequences if the broadband industry undergoes stricter regulations.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read

Republicans aren't happy with the Federal Communications Commission's plan to regulate the Internet like telephone service, and they're going out of their way to make sure people know it.

The FCC commissioners (left to right): Ajit Pai, Mignon Clyburn, Tom Wheeler (chairman), Jessica Rosenworcel, and Michael O'Rielly. FCC

The latest broadside comes from within the FCC itself, with Republican commissioner Ajit Pai using a press conference Tuesday to lay into Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal on Net neutrality, or the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Pai argues that the proposed new regulations would give the government too much power over the Internet.

"The American people are being misled about President Obama's plan to regulate the Internet," Pai said, suggesting that the White House exerted undue influence over the agency.

Michael O'Rielly, the only other Republican commissioner on the five-member FCC, echoed Pai's statement, adding that the information the FCC has offered publicly about its Net neutrality proposal is not the full truth.

The comments by Pai and O'Rielly are part of an increasingly vocal attack on the FCC's proposal, an attack that includes questions about whether President Barack Obama pushed his own beliefs onto the independent agency. The opposition stems from the fear that added regulation will result in higher broadband prices for consumers and strip incentives for broadband companies to invest in upgrading their networks. The moves signify a last-ditch effort by Republicans to stop the FCC from adopting Net neutrality rules.

See also: Net Fix -- making sense of the Net neutrality debate

While nearly everyone agrees that some rules are needed to protect the Internet, they don't agree on the legal basis for making these rules. At the crux of the current debate is Title II, a provision that reclassifies broadband as a telecommunications service that falls under telephonelike regulations. Obama, most Democrats and Wheeler favor Title II, while Republicans and broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon are vehemently against it.

It's highly likely that the proposal will make it through the FCC. Republicans on the commission and in Congress will continue making noise until the FCC's final vote on February 26. But Wheeler, a Democrat appointed by Obama, has the three Democratic votes needed to pass the measure. Congress could push through new legislation it has been working on as an alternative, but Obama could veto the law.

Under the influence?

As part of the assault on the proposal, Congressional Republicans have questioned the impact Obama had on the FCC's plan. On Monday, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) sent a letter to Wheeler demanding a written explanation of what led Wheeler to conclude that an earlier proposal he considered was "no longer appropriate."

"Since the FCC is an independent agency that derives its authority from Congress and not the White House, it is highly concerning that the White House would seek to take on this level of involvement in the regulatory process of the FCC, or attempt to supplant completely the agency's decision-making apparatus," Johnson said, demanding that the agency send him documents by February 23.

Last week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee also opened an inquiry and demanded records of communications between the FCC and the White House pertaining to how the rules were developed.

Pai, along with Congressional Republicans who oppose broadband reclassification, have questioned the influence of the White House. In November, Obama issued a statement urging the FCC to adopt strong rules based on treating the Internet as a public utility. In January, Wheeler, speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show, indicated for the first time publicly that his proposal would indeed follow those public utility rules.

Republicans believe that Obama's statement, along with other influence from Obama's staff, may have interfered with the FCC's process for developing rules.

Wheeler has said repeatedly that he was already considering broadband reclassification even before Obama weighed in on the issue. His staff reiterated his thinking Tuesday in a statement.

"Chairman Wheeler welcomed the president's point of view, as he welcomed the millions of Americans who made their views known," a spokesman for the FCC said in an email. "After a yearlong process, Chairman Wheeler put forward a proposal that uses every tool in the toolbox to make sure the Internet stays fast, fair, and open for all Americans.

Wheeler's initial proposal, introduced last May, did not include broadband reclassification. In fact, Wheeler had said that such an action would be a last resort for the FCC in drafting rules meant to reinstate regulation.

But the chairman has explained that over the course of the past year, and after reading some of the 4 million public comments filed in response to his original proposal, his thinking changed. He realized his rules didn't go far enough to preserve true Net neutrality.

Skepticism over light touch

To assuage the concerns over some potential heavy-handed effects of Title II, Wheeler has said that the agency plans to strip out the onerous requirements meant for the telephone network, a process known in legal circles as "forbearance." He called the light-touch approach to Title II his idea of "regulation for the 21st century."

But Pai and O'Rielly, who say they have read through the 332-page proposal, claim Wheeler's assurances that these new rules will not result in rate regulation and additional taxes are not valid.

"The promised forbearance amounts to fauxbearance," O'Rielly said.

Pai said the FCC's use of Title II to regulate broadband is an invitation to allow the government to "micromanage the Internet." And he said he worries that future iterations of the FCC would use the agency's expanded authority to implement new taxes or regulate rates, in spite of Wheeler's assurances that the agency won't take such action.

"Expect regulation to ratchet up and forbearance to fade," he said. "The FCC is going to be deciding prices."

In addition to finding fault with the content of the FCC's proposal, Pai has also been critical of the agency's process for imposing the new rules. On Tuesday, he called on the commission to make its proposal public before the vote.

But the FCC generally does not make draft proposals public until after the full commission votes. Pai argued that the proposal's potential impact on the public interest justifies an exception. Still, he said he would not release the document to the public without the chairman's permission.

This story is part of a CNET special report looking at the challenges of Net neutrality, and what rules -- if any -- are needed to fuel innovation and protect US consumers.