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Wheeler and House committee clash over open Internet

22 May, 2014

FCC Chair Tom Wheeler went into the House Energy and Commerce Committee May 20 and found it filled with members from both parties who object to Wheeler’s approach to Internet rules. While Wheeler touched on most aspects of telecommunications, focus of the committee seemed to be largely on aspects of the open Internet, and on the very existence of rules. In his statement, he said:

“Last week, the Commission adopted that Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, beginning the process of crafting rules to protect and promote the open Internet... I believe that the Section 706 framework set forth by the Court of Appeals in Verizon is sufficient to give us the authority to adopt and implement robust rules that will accomplish this goal.”

Democratic Committee members raised a set of objections.

•    Ranking Democrat Anna Eshoo (D-CA) complained that Wheeler’s plan could enable “some giant company blocking content” online.

•    Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) said, “Paid prioritization divides the Internet into haves and have-nots, and it will entrench the big companies at the expense of start-ups.”

•    California Democrat Doris Matsui said, “If this concept moves forward, we could inadvertently block the next Google or Amazon from the market without even knowing it.”

In response, Wheeler said emphatically, as he has recently, “There’s not a fast Internet and a slow Internet ... and when the consumer buys access to the Internet, they are buying access to the full Internet and that’s what our rules attempt to protect.”

But the bulk of criticism aimed at Wheeler came from majority members on the republican-dominated committee who all seemed to object to the very idea of rules – despite the fact that rules were not Wheeler’s creation. As he said:

“There has been a bipartisan consensus, starting under the Bush Administration with Chairman Powell, on the importance of an open Internet to economic growth, investment, and innovation.  But today we do not have any rules in place to protect the open Internet.

Nevertheless, Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the committee, told Wheeler, “The Internet has flourished under the current light-touch regulatory scheme, and subjecting it to burdensome regulations is a leap in the wrong direction.”

And Greg Walden, (R-OR), who chaired the hearing, said the proposed rules would “give the bureaucrats at the FCC the authority to second-guess business decisions and to regulate every possible aspect of the Internet."

In return, Wheeler reminded the critics that since the FCC issued its first Internet rules in 2010, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in broadband capacity. “So the rules don’t seem to have a chilling effect” on broadband investment, he said.

Statement of Tom Wheeler, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission, before the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology (House Commerce Committee, May 20, 2014)

FCC chairman gets bipartisan grilling over Net neutrality proposal (Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2014)

AT&T to Net Neutrality Has Congress Questioning Wheeler (Bloomberg, May 20, 2014)

Republicans grill FCC chair on Internet rule's impact on broadband providers
(Business Journal, May 20, 2014)

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