FCC votes to reconsider regulating Internet providers

Chris Moody Contributor
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The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to take another step toward reclassifying the way it regulates Internet service providers, releasing a plan for public comment that would give the federal agency vast new powers over companies that distribute Web access.

“The FCC has an obligation to move forward with an open, constructive public comment process to ask hard questions, build a record, find a solution and resolve the uncertainty that has been created,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

The 3-2 vote comes on the heels of a unanimous April ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that said the FCC had overstepped its authority when the federal agency sanctioned Comcast for slowing some Internet traffic within its networks. The FCC has since made efforts to find new ways to regulate the industry that fall within the confines of the law.

The FCC currently classifies Internet service providers — namely AT&T, Comcast and Verizon — as information services, leaving them largely exempt from regulation. The vote today is the first step toward re-classifying the companies to a new and more restrictive category within the FCC code.

The vote will start the process of reversing an eight-year-old decision to keep Internet lines virtually deregulated. The commission will take public comments on three proposals. The first would maintain the current framework, the second would regulate Internet service providers like telephone companies, and the final proposal, which Genachowski has dubbed the “third way,” would establish an entirely new framework for regulating the Internet service providers.

“It’s a major change in the U.S. policy toward the Internet. It would regulate the Internet in ways we’ve never done before,” said Bret Swanson, visiting fellow at Digital Society, a non-profit organization that focuses on technology and public policy. “This will open a whole can of worms and would probably invite many years of litigation, which the FCC does not have a good history of winning.”

In the opening discussion before the vote, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps made the case for why his agency should gain more control over the industry.

“The law was twisted to shamefully promote the interests of a powerful few ahead of the interests of consumers,” Copps said, referring to the lack of regulation in the industry. “I, for one, am worried about relying only on the goodwill of a few powerful companies to achieve this country’s broadband hopes and dreams.”

It did not take long for the Internet companies, which would face new restrictions under two of the three proposals, to fire back.

“Reclassifying high-speed broadband Internet service as a telecom service is a terrible idea,” said Tom Tauke, executive vice president for public affairs for Verizon. “The negative consequences for online users and the Internet ecosystem would be severe and have ramifications for decades. It is difficult to understand why the FCC continues to consider this option. “

Calling the decision “troubling” and “unsettling,” AT&T’s Senior Executive Vice President for External and Legislative Affairs Jim Cicconi voiced the company’s dissent.

“The FCC has argued that it is not seeking to regulate the Internet. The facts — indeed the very words of the proposal voted on today — tell a different story,” he said. “We remain confident that if the FCC persists in its course — and we truly hope it does not — the courts will surely overturn their action.”

The commissioners arguing in favor of the motion took great care to explain that this was not an attempt at a government takeover.

“Despite all the spin to the contrary, we are not talking — even remotely — about regulating the Internet,” said Copps. “We are talking about meaningful oversight of the infrastructure and services that allow Americans to get to the Internet.”

The FCC has long advocated for gaining more control over the companies that provide Internet service. The move is part of a larger plan to create a government-funded national broadband service, which would provide Internet service throughout the country.

“Every American must have access to affordable broadband at a speed sufficient for meaningful use no matter where they live or how much money they make,” he said in a recent YouTube address.

The FCC will keep the comment period for the proposals open through the summer. The agency is expected to implement the changes after a few months.