News

Dems Prevail in Net Fight

11/14/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

Washington — The Democratic-controlled Senate
last week voted 52-46 along straight party lines not to
bring a resolution to block the Federal Communications
Commission’s network-neutrality rules to a floor vote, essentially
killing the
GOP-backed effort to
invalidate them using
the Congressional Review
Act.

The resolut ion
would have nullifi ed
the FCC’s December
2010 decision, also
along party lines, to
expand and codify
the network-neutrality
rules, now set to
go into effect Nov. 20.
(See Cover Story.)

Theoretically, Republican
backers of
the resolution could
reint roduce it . A
source close to one of
those Republicans,
speaking on background,
said they
would get together
with resolution cosponsor
and Senate
Minority Leader Mitch
McConnell (R-Ky.) on
how to proceed, but
that at press time “all
options are on the
table.”

Since the Democrats chose the procedural vote to drive
a stake in the resolution, though, it would appear to be all
but dead.

The Republican-controlled House passed its version of
the resolution earlier this year, but its prospects were never
good in the Senate, and didn’t get better after the White
House signaled last week it would veto it. President Obama
made network neutrality part of his campaign platform,
and praised the rules’ passage last December.

HOURS OF DEBATE

The resolution did not go quietly, however, and was the
subject of hours of debate. Republicans called the decision
to codify the FCC’s 2004 Internet openness principles an
unnecessary, job-killing and innovation-stifling overreach
by an agency that lacked the authority from Congress to
implement new rules. Democrats countered that the rules
were a reasonable, compromise measure that allowed for
investment but were a check on the potential — and perhaps
reality — of Internet blocking or degrading content
for business or political reasons.

Those issues will likely not be going away, since the rules
have been challenged in court as an overreach of FCC authority
by one side, and as insufficiently regulatory on the
other.

During the debate, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.),
who sponsored the resolution, widened the discussion to
say that the issue was also a more general one about regulatory
overreach. “In a larger context, we’ve been having this
debate for 34 months,” she said, “and the main theme is this:
The Obama Administration’s relentless imposition of new
and destructive regulations that have frozen our economy.”

She argued that the FCC itself could not come up with
more than a handful of alleged transgressions the rules
were meant to prevent. “In a 134-page regulatory order,
the FCC spent only three paragraphs attempting to catalog
alleged instances of misconduct,” she said. “Even within
those three short paragraphs, every alleged problem
was addressed under
the FCC’s existing
rules. Or, it was
fixed by the provider
under pressure
from either
the public or the
competitive marketplace,”
she said.

McConnell, in an
opening statement
before the debate,
said the FCC was
overreaching to fix
something that was
not broken, using
authority it didn’t
get from Congress.
He added that the
FCC had not “gotten
the memo” from
the president about
vetting government
regulations for their
impact on the economy.
He argued, as
did a series of Republican
senators,
that the rules would
cost jobs — as many
as 300,000 — and
deter investment
and innovation.

On the other side, Senate Commerce Committee chairman
Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said the rules would instead
spur innovation and investment, and would protect consumers
from an Internet divided into fast and slow lanes.

“I believe that the FCC’s effort, along with ongoing
oversight and enforcement, will protect consumers,” he
said. “And I believe it will provide companies with the certainty
they need to make investments in our growing digital
economy. While many champions of the open Internet
would have preferred a stricter decision — and I myself
have real reservations about treating wireless broadband
differently from wired broadband — I think the FCC’s decision
was a meaningful step forward,” he said.

Rockefeller suggested that the rules were not so much
about what had already happened, as preventing what
could happen without them. “In a world without a free
and open Internet, there would be nothing to stop broadband
providers from blocking access to websites that offer
products that compete with those of its affiliates,” he
said.

PROTECTING CONSUMERS

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), one of the more passionate
supporters of network-neutrality, spoke at length about
the rules as an issue of protecting small business and not
just speech, though he called it the free-speech issue of our
time. Franken said the rules are a way to make sure that
the Web site of the local pizzeria loads just as fast as that
of a Domino’s or Pizza Hut. He argued that far from discouraging
innovation, the FCC’s rules allow for the whiz
kid in a garage to compete with the biggest players in the
space.

September