Tough New 'Net Neutrality' Rules Approved By FCC

Tom Wheeler - H - 2015
Associated Press

The vote, along party lines, means the Internet can be regulated like a utility; but opponents are expected to quickly raise legal challenges that could delay implementation.

There are now controversial new rules of the road on the electronic superhighway, which backers predict will insure a free and open Internet.

Led by chairman Tom Wheeler, the Federal Communication Commission on Thursday in Washington, D.C. approved landmark regulations which employ a version of Title II of the Communications Act to govern online access and traffic, both wired and wireless.

This is seen as the most important change in communications policy since the 1996 Telecom Act; and a significant expansion of the FCC's traditional jurisdiction.

The vote, as expected, was strictly along party lines. It was three Democrats (Wheeler, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel) in favor and two Republicans commissioners dissenting (Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly).

The vote went forward even though the two Republicans on the FCC asked for a delay to allow more time for review.

They criticized Wheeler for not making the process transparent enough and for circulating all of the terms to the public as well as to the commissioners in advance of the vote.

There were some changes made even after the document was first circulated in January. Some of the changes were to satisfy Google and public interest groups reportedly concerned that some of the language could unintentionally lead to Internet service providers charging additional fees to web companies.

It is a victory for President Obama who called for "Net Neutrality" in a Nov. 10, 2014, speech. The president said it was necessary to create a system where everyone from individual entrepreneurs to big companies have the same access, data speeds and ability to use the worldwide web without paying extra.

"The FCC was chartered to promote competition, innovation, and investment in our networks," said the president. "In the service of that mission, there is no higher calling than protecting an open, accessible, and free Internet."

Opponents have charged that the president's efforts to impose Title II went beyond using his bully pulpit to state his views about what the FCC should do. The commissioners are appointed by the White House, but otherwise the FCC is an independent agency. The Republican leadership of the House Oversight Committee in February opened an investigation into whether the White House exercised improper influence.

Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-So. Dakota) said last week that the FCC was falling for "the bully tactics of political activists and the president himself."

Critics including major telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon; as well as multisystem cable systems like Comcast and Time Warner Cable strongly oppose the use of Title II regulation and are expected to mount another legal challenge fairly quickly.

AT&T has said it will go to court seeking an order to stop the use of Title II before the FCC can implement the plan.

The new regulations are only part of changes being pushed by the Obama administration that have critics upset. Last month the FCC approved a new official definition of broadband, which increased the speed people can typically expect from four to 25 megabits per second for downloads.

The FCC also voted Thursday to essentially override state laws that until now have restricted many communities from offering their own broadband networks in completion with private distributors, primarily the giant cable companies. This impacts laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, among other places.

If the opponents can't stop the use of Title II in the courts, they will also go after a legislative solution, although that could ultimately be vetoed by President Obama.

It was a dozen years ago that Google, Facebook and others pressed for rules to insure Internet openness for all. When there was no action by the Congress, lobbying moved to the FCC. In 2010, the agency approved rules using Section 706. That was quickly challenged in court by Verizon, and in 2014, those rules were struck down by a federal appeals court.

Despite the protests, there are indications the tough new rules have strong public support. The Progressive Change Institute did a national poll that showed 61 percent support, which broke down to 68 percent of Democrats in favor and 52 percent of Republicans.

Feb, 26, 2:45 p.m. The group that did the poll showing support for net neutrality was incorrectly identified in an earlier version.