Just days before Congress recesses for the upcoming elections, House Commerce Committee chair Henry Waxman stepped into the debate over Internet regulation yesterday, releasing draft legislation to impose certain “neutrality” rules to providers of broadband Internet service. Hammered out in negotiations over the past few weeks with the active participation of Google, Verizon, and other competing broadband industry players, the final product—not surprisingly—looks a lot like the Google–Verizon consensus plan announced last month.
Specifically, the Waxman proposal would ban Internet access providers such as Verizon from blocking content outright but would otherwise allow them to manage the traffic on their networks—and even offer “priority service” for a fee—as long as they do not “unjustly or unreasonably discriminate.” This anti-discrimination requirement would not apply to wireless Internet access, which would be kept mostly free of regulation.
In general, the new rules would be enforced on a case-by-case basis by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which would be banned from writing its own rules on the subject. The FCC would also be barred from pursuing its plans to classify broadband Internet service as a type of telecommunications service, which would have permanently subjected it to heavy, telephone-style rules.
Waxman’s plan left many pro-regulation advocates, who wanted a virtual ban on any sort of active traffic management, sputtering. And it could represent a death blow to their efforts: If Waxman—who has rarely met a regulation he didn’t like—doesn’t support them, who will?
The apparent rejection of comprehensive regulation is good news for American consumers and Web surfers. But it’s not time to break out the champagne yet. While more limited than feared, the legislation would still give the FCC a critical foothold into Internet regulation. The standards are unclear: Who is to say what is unjust or unreasonable? The terms themselves come from the world of telephone regulation. And with technologies changing, how is a distinction between wireless and wireline to be maintained?
Worryingly, the legislation gives the FCC powers over not only broadband Internet but any service it finds to be a “functional equivalent” to broadband. This is an open invitation to regulatory expansion.
Moreover, while broadband providers are understandably looking to end the uncertainly over broadband rules in order to create a better climate for needed investments, it is not clear that legislation would provide that certainty. Instead, any new law would likely lead to years of further uncertainty as each provision and definition is litigated in court.
There is simply no justification for granting the FCC any jurisdiction over broadband Internet service. At a time when the economy is sputtering under a growing mountain of regulation, why should Congress expand that regulation to one of the few successful parts of the economy?
Lite or not, policymakers should reject this proposed new regulation.