Federal Communications Commissioners testifying before Congress Wednesday admitted that the agency’s new net neutrality rules give the FCC the authority to influence rates charged by Internet service providers.
All five commissioners appeared before a Senate panel Wednesday afternoon to testify on a number of issues currently before the FCC, including its newly adopted Internet authority. It was FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s second appearance before Congress this week over the agency’s new authority. (RELATED: Congress Questions FCC Chief About ‘Secret Meetings’ With White House Over Net Neutrality)
That authority, included in the strongest rules ever placed over ISPs in a partisan FCC vote last month, includes a provision downplayed by the agency’s three Democratic commissioners, all of whom continue to combat criticism from the right that the rules give the government a regulatory heavy hand over the Internet industry. (RELATED: FCC Votes In Favor Of Net Neutrality)
As Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly have pointed out since Wheeler distributed his plan internally in February, the plan and provision in question doesn’t explicitly set rates, but instead gives the FCC the authority to act in any way the agency deems “just and reasonable” to resolve charge disputes raised by consumers.
The commissioners and Republicans in Congress argue that and other provisions included in the rules threaten to stifle industry growth and innovation, as well as implement new taxes on ISPs and Internet content creators, which will be reflected back on consumers.
“We have an obligation, I believe, to look at any complaint, anything filed before us, and make that decision accordingly,” Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in response to a question from Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune. Thune’s committee oversees the FCC in the upper chamber.
Clyburn added that any complaint would have to meet an “extremely high” bar for the FCC to take action in the form of regulating a company’s rates.
“We don’t have such a case before us right now,” fellow Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. “But I think it’s a matter of due process that any provider… has the opportunity to come to the commission and seek resolution.”
“If a case is brought forward, it strikes me at least that the FCC has an obligation to respond,” Thune said. “I’d have a hard time explaining how that adjudicatory process would not be rate regulation.”
Thune added he thought the FCC was acted as “a potentially threatening and unpredictable agency” when it passed, what Wheeler himself called, “the strongest open internet protections ever proposed” last month without releasing them to the public first, as is standard FCC practice.
“Rather than exercising regulatory humility, the three majority commissioners chose to take the most radical, polarizing and partisan path possible,” Thune said. “Simply put, your actions jeopardize the open Internet that we are all seeking to protect.”
Under the plan, the FCC will regulate ISPs under a modernized interpretation of Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act — a regulatory proposal inspired by those used to break up telephone monopolies in the 1930s.
Under Wheeler’s “21st century” Title II, the FCC will bar companies from segregating or blocking Internet content, establishing fast and slow lanes for web traffic or requiring Internet content creators to set up special deals and pay higher prices for acceptable transmission speeds.
Thune is currently working on a bill that would grant many of the protections called for by net neutrality activists, while abstaining from the public utility-style regulation adopted by the FCC last month. (RELATED: Congress: What The FCC Did In 300 Pages, We Could Do In Six — ‘Without The Overreach’)