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Waxman's last-minute Net neutrality bill hits a GOP wall

September 29, 2010 |  4:37 pm

Henry Waxman, net neutrality, Joe Barton, broadband, Internet regulation Looks like the Net neutrality ball is back in the Federal Communications Commission's court.

A draft proposal by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) to give the FCC temporary authority to enforce limited neutrality protections surfaced last week, drawing favorable comments from telcom-industry allies and neutral ones from some tech advocates. But despite early support from a key Republican -- Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida, the ranking member on the Communications, Technology and the Internet subcommittee -- Waxman pulled the plug on the bill Wednesday.

The measure could conceivably resurface during the planned lame-duck session. But Waxman said he wouldn't move forward without "full bipartisan support" on his panel, and the committee's top Republican, Joe Barton of Texas, isn't on board.

Barton released a statement too, saying ...

... there was a "widespread view" among the GOP leadership and the panel's Republicans that there wasn't enough time left in the session to "ensure that Chairman Waxman’s proposal will keep the Internet open without chilling innovation and job creation."

More pointedly, Barton said: "It is not appropriate to give the FCC authority to regulate the Internet. If the Congress wants to prevent the FCC reclassifying internet service under Title II it should go ahead and do so without qualification."

Oddly enough, Waxman's bill would have given the FCC less authority than the commission proposed taking through its own rulemaking powers. The draft -- a compromise between broadband providers and Net neutrality advocates -- would bar ISPs from picking winners and losers among websites, applications or services but not deter them from managing their networks. The FCC would be prohibited for two years from bringing broadband under Title II, and its rulemaking authority over ISPs would be sharply limited. The FCC could act on complaints against ISPs that allegedly violated the the neutrality rules, but victims could not sue.

Depending on your point of view, you might also see an opening in the draft for ISPs to charge websites for priority access to their broadband customers, if they did so in a non-discriminatory way (e.g., with published rates). And rather than imposing the same conditions on wireless networks, it would simply bar them from blocking access to legal sites or preventing customers from running applications that compete with their voice or video services. In other words, wireless carriers could continue to selectively throttle bandwidth-intensive applications and sites.

In short, the draft wasn't as favorable to ISPs as the framework laid out by Google and Verizon, but it didn't threaten them as much as the expansive rules FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed last year.

If the bill can't move, Waxman said, the FCC should continue with its hotly disputed plan to regulate broadband ISPs under Title II of the Communications Act -- the section that requires phone companies to act as common carriers. "The bottom line is that we must protect the open Internet," Waxman's statement intones. "If Congress can’t act, the FCC must."

Barton, naturally, did not agree. "With Chairman Waxman’s effort comes a tacit admission that the FCC is going down the wrong path, a path that will stifle investment and create regulatory overhang in one of the most dynamic sectors of our economy," his statement contends. "I am glad that there seems to be a fairly broad consensus that the FCC should not reclassify Internet service under the monopoly-era Title II of the Communications Act."

Credit: Brendan Hoffman / Bloomberg News

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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