FCC Chair’s Proposed Net Neutrality Rule Not Popular At Congressional Hearing

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler testifying before the House on May 20, 2014.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler testifying before the House on May 20, 2014.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler took the hot seat today in an oversight hearing before the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology to testify about current issues before his agency, including net neutrality. The overriding theme of the day? Pretty much everyone who spoke hates the rule the FCC narrowly approved for consideration last week — just for different reasons.

A brief recap: back in January, an appeals court struck down the FCC’s open internet rule — the piece of regulation that required all internet traffic to be treated equally. Last week, the five members of the FCC voted on a new rule to replace the old one. The motion to consider the rule passed by a party-line vote of 3-2, and now has entered a four-month public comment period.

The new proposed rule is, at best, highly controversial. It would consider “fast lane,” pay-for-priority access to be against the rule until a company proves it has a legitimate reason for prioritizing certain traffic, at which point they can do it pretty much all they want. An enormous list of internet companies, consumer advocates, and even FCC commissioners expressed concerns about the proposal before its official unveiling on May 15.

However, the proposed rule also seeks public input on two key questions about the FCC’s regulation of broadband. One, it asks if there should be an outright ban on fast lanes altogether. And two: it asks if broadband access should be classified as a common carrier (called “Title II“).

Opinions today from House subcommittee members were divided along party lines. Republican members repeatedly questioned the FCC’s authority and justification for regulating at all, and Democratic representatives chastised Wheeler’s proposal for not going far enough to protect consumers and innovators.

Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden of Oregon set the tone with his opening statements (PDF), which began by challenging the FCC’s overall “action and selective inaction” before diving into Title II.

“The modern communications landscape bears no resemblance to the world Title II was meant to regulate,” said Rep. Walden, “and application of Title II to the Internet is, at best, a poor fit.” He continued:

Worse still, the practical consequences of reclassification are to give the bureaucrats at the FCC the authority to second-guess business decisions and to regulate every possible aspect of the Internet. We should all pause and consider the prospect of the FCC as a rate-setting authority over Internet access and what that meant for innovation in the telephone network of yesteryear.

Other Republican members of the subcommittee echoed these sentiments, standing strongly against regulation. Where they did approve of FCC intervention at all, they seemed to cheer on the fast lane concept. One representative specifically said that content creators who move more content should pay more to do so — a familiar-sounding piece of business-friendly logic that doesn’t have great outcomes for consumers.

The Democratic members of the subcommittee, on the other hand, favor active regulation from the FCC. But despite wanting the FCC to enact a new rule, they were perhaps even more harsh on Wheeler.

California Rep. Henry Waxman urged Wheeler not just to pass weak regulation that would face court challenges yet again, but to pass strong, thorough regulation that would get it right this time. Rep. Anna Eshoo, also of California, has repeatedly called for the FCC to undertake the Title II reclassification, and spoke adamantly against the entire concept of fast lane access.

“I don’t want this to become an auction, selling off the best in bits and pieces where some pay for faster lanes, while others cannot pay and get stuck in a slow lane,” said Rep. Eshoo. Other Democratic members of the subcommitee also urged Wheeler to consider the Title II regulation.

Members of Congress aren’t the only ones who get to tell Wheeler and the FCC what they think about the proposed rule. The first public comment period is open until July 15. If you’ve got an opinion about net neutrality, here’s how to let them know.

A full video of today’s oversight hearing is available here.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.