Republicans Slam FCC Over Net Neutrality ‘Power Grab’

Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota

Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota Toby Brusseau/AP File Photo

"Chairman Wheeler’s proposal … is a power grab for the federal government," Sen. John Thune said.

Republicans in Congress wasted little time condemning the Federal Communications Commission's plan to adopt sweeping net-neutrality regulations, accusing the agency of a big government "power grab" that blatantly panders to President Obama's wishes.

In an op-ed in Wired magazine published Wednesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the rules would guarantee "the rights of Internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone's permission."

But GOP lawmakers said the agency is intentionally circumventing the legislative branch.

"Chairman Wheeler's proposal to regulate the Internet as a public utility is not about net neutrality—it is a power grab for the federal government by the chairman of a supposedly independent agency who finally succumbed to the bully tactics of political activists and the president himself," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune in a statement.

Thune and other Republicans are doubly agitated because they have attempted in recent weeks to craft their own legislative compromise on net neutrality, amid fears that the writing has been on the wall since Obama came out publicly in support of utility-style regulation of the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act. Thune as well as Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have drafted legislation that would block the many of the same behaviors as Wheeler's rules, such as blocking websites or charging for speedier service.

"If the only objective behind the FCC's new proposal was to protect an open Internet and establish net-neutrality rules, we could accomplish that through bipartisan legislation and avoid the years of uncertainty and litigation created by Chairman Wheeler's radical proposal," Thune added.

But Thune's bill would not go quite as far as Wheeler's rules, which most Democrats favor. It would essentially strike the FCC's authority over much of the Internet outside of net neutrality—a compromise Democrats have so far been unwilling to entertain.

Obama has also indicated he is skeptical of a legislative deal. Last month, the White House sent a letter to Thune saying it favored "straightforward protections" to net neutrality under Title II.

Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the House Commerce Communications Subcommittee, charged Wheeler for not being transparent enough with his proposal, on which the FCC is slated to vote on Feb. 26. The vote of the five-member bipartisan agency is expected to be 3-2 vote in favor of the net-neutrality rules. Wheeler will share his draft regulations with the other commissioners this week.

"The chairman rejected our request for transparency, wrapping himself in old-school, Washington regulatory mumbo jumbo," Walden said during a markup Wednesday. "This is not how it should be done, and in many states, public utility commissions operate far more in the open when they conduct the people's business."

Just as quickly as Republicans have come out to blast Wheeler's proposed rules, Democrats have come out to defend them. Rep. Anna Eshoo, the ranking member on the House Commerce Committee, called the rules a "triumph for the American consumer."

Under Wheeler's proposed rules—described as the "strongest possible"—broadband would be reclassified as a "telecommunications service" under Title II of the Communications Act. The move would empower the FCC with expansive new authorities over the Internet to bar providers from intentionally blocking or slowing down online content.

Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T have countered that the regulation will lead to poorer-quality service for all Internet users and have vowed to file lawsuits challenging the rules if they are enacted.

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