Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., blasted all five members of the Federal Communications Commission appearing before the Senate Commerce Committee he chairs, calling the FCC a "potentially threatening and unpredictable agency."
Thune made it clear from the outset Wednesday that he was not enthusiastic about the FCC's vote in February to protect Net neutrality by classifying Internet broadband as a public utility.
"The FCC sits right in the middle of America’s digital world," Thune said in his opening remarks. "And this is even more true following the FCC’s recent decision to turn our nation’s broadband Internet infrastructure into a public utility.
"As is apparent from that action last month, the FCC is also a potentially threatening and unpredictable agency as it struggles to operate under legal authority designed nearly 100 years ago and not seriously updated in decades."
Will Congress Overrule the FCC?
Since January, when the FCC made it clear that it was actively considering reclassification of broadband, Thune has been working on legislation to address concerns about Internet fairness without requiring utility-style oversight. Specifically, the legislation would maintain the core principles adopted by the FCC -- no blocking of Web sites, no Web traffic slowdowns, and no paid prioritization (i.e., "fast lanes") -- while eliminating what Republicans view as the potential for increased consumer taxes and regulatory uncertainty.
The Republican proposal was tabled last month, in part because Thune was unable to attract any Democratic support for his legislation. Comments by two committee Democrats, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, suggested they might be open to a possible legislative solution. No specific timeline was announced during the meeting.
Thune acknowledged his proposal needed work.
"Like most first drafts," the committee chairman said, "our draft bill is not perfect. I invite members of this committee and stakeholders from across the political spectrum to offer us ideas on how we can improve it, so that the final draft can win bipartisan support and provide everyone in the Internet world with the certainty that they need."
Vigorous Defense by FCC Chairman
One person who sees no need for legislative action is FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who shepherded the new Net neutrality rules through the partisan divisions of the commission.
"On Feb. 26, 2015, after a yearlong process and a decade of debate," Wheeler told the committee, "the FCC adopted bright-line open Internet protections that ban blocking, throttling and paid prioritization. These rules will fully apply to fixed and mobile broadband. The order also includes a general conduct rule that can be used to stop new and novel threats to the Internet. That means there will be basic ground rules to assure Internet openness and a referee on the field to enforce them."
The prospect of the FCC serving as referee is precisely what agitates many Republicans in Congress, along with many telecommunications companies that provide Internet services. Whether legislation can be crafted that would pass Congress and receive the approval of President Obama remains to be seen.