FCC Open Internet Proposal 'Unnecessary and Unlawful,' House Republicans Say

A group of House Republicans are urging Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel to back away from her proposal to restore the Obama-era net neutrality rules, arguing that the initiative is both unlawful and unwise.

“Your proposal could not have come at a worse time,” Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Oregon), chair of the Energy and Commerce committee, and Robert Latta (Ohio), chair of the Communications and Technology subcommittee, write in a letter joined by 27 colleagues.

“The country is on the cusp of closing the digital divide. We should not burden broadband providers with unnecessary regulations as they seek to deploy broadband to unserved Americans,” the lawmakers write.

They add that broadband networks “have thrived under the existing light-touch regulatory approach.”

They are weighing in on Rosenworcel's proposal to classify broadband as a utility service and pass some common carrier regulations -- including ones that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking or throttling traffic.

The FCC passed similar regulations in 2015, but repealed them during the Trump administration. Former chairman Ajit Pai said at the time of the repeal that the rules were too heavy-handed. 

Consumer advocacy groups opposed the repeal, arguing that the rules were needed to prevent carriers from censoring websites, or otherwise limiting subscribers' ability to access streaming video, search engines and other online services.

Since the repeal, the Supreme Court struck down regulations issued by a different agency -- the Environmental Protection Agency -- on the grounds that only Congress can issue rules affecting “major questions” relating to policy.

Rodgers and the other officials now say that the Supreme Court's ruling regarding environmental regulations deprives the FCC of the authority to issue net neutrality rules.

“Regulation of broadband is undoubtedly a major question of economic and political significance,” they write.

“Adding new regulations through reclassifying broadband is both unnecessary and unlawful,” they add.

When Rosenworcel proposed the rules, she said they would enable the FCC to police carriers, given that the agency is empowered to regulate utility services, but not “information” services; broadband access is currently considered an information service.

“Common sense tells us that the nation's leading communications watchdog should have the muscle it needs to protect consumers and make sure their internet access is fast, open and fair," she said last month.

Rosenworcel also stated at the time that new FCC regulations would “establish a uniform national standard rather than a patchwork of state-by-state approaches.”

After the FCC voted to repeal the Obama-era rules, several states enacted their own version of net neutrality regulations. California lawmakers, for instance, passed a law prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or throttling traffic, charging higher fees for fast-lane service, and exempting their own video streams from consumers' data caps.

It's worth noting that some consumer advocacy groups are urging the FCC to avoid overriding tougher state laws.

Last week, a coalition of 10 organizations including Public Knowledge, Fight for the Future and Free Press met with Rosenworcel and argued that federal rules should leave states free to enforce more restrictive regulations, according to the advocates' summary of the meeting.

The FCC is expected to vote Thursday on whether to move forward by soliciting public comments on the proposed rules.

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