Republican lawmakers embrace net neutrality, but would block FCC from using Title II

Republicans in Congress on Friday introduced legislation that would enshrine into law many net neutrality rules but that would also stop the FCC from reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. The proposed bills, while a reversal from Republicans' longstanding opposition to net neutrality rules, are being seen as a way to pre-empt even tougher regulations the FCC is likely to vote on at the end of February.

The draft legislation from Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) says that Internet service providers (ISPs) "may not block lawful content, applications, or services, subject to reasonable network management." The bills would also block ISPs from throttling traffic "by selectively slowing, speeding, degrading, or enhancing Internet traffic based on source, destination, or content." Further, the bills would bar paid prioritization of Internet traffic.

However, all of those rules would carve out a loose definition of "reasonable network management." According to the legislation, a network management practice would be considered reasonable "if it is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and any technology and operational limitations of the broadband Internet access service provider."

That language is likely to please ISPs and wireless carriers, which in particular have said that wireless carriers need more flexibility to manage their networks, especially because of spectrum constraints.

The legislation would block the FCC from using Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act to enact net neutrality rules and would define broadband as an information service. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler indicated earlier this month that he favored reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II as part of an effort to craft new net neutrality rules. Wheeler said the FCC is going to circulate a rulemaking to all its commissioners on Feb. 5 and vote on it Feb. 26.

House and Senate panels will hold hearings on Wednesday on net neutrality and Sen. Thune aims to have his legislation ready next week. "By turning the FCC away from a heavy-handed and messy approach to regulating the Internet, this draft protects both consumers who rely on Internet services and innovators who create jobs," Thune said about his legislation in a statement.

While a stark reversal for Republicans, the draft legislation was met with skepticism by net neutrality proponents who said the bills lack necessary consumer protections, according to Reuters. "We stand ready and willing to work with our Republican colleagues, but unfortunately, the bill as currently drafted would dramatically undermine the FCC's vital role in protecting consumers and small businesses online by limiting its enforcement and rulemaking authorities in this critically important area," Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy, Ron Wyden, Al Franken and Cory Booker said in a joint statement.

The Obama administration is also opposed to the bills. "In terms of legislation, we don't believe it's necessary given that the FCC has the authorities that it needs under Title II," an unnamed White House official told Reuters. "However, we always remain open to working with anyone who shares the president's goal of fully preserving a free and open internet now and into the future."

For more:
- see this Daily Dot article
- see this CNET article
- see this Reuters article
- see this Politico article
- see this NYT article

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