The US government is on a path to have “virtually unlimited power” to regulate every aspect of the internet, the chairman of the powerful Senate commerce committee said Wednesday.
Republican senator John Thune slammed the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) plans to introduce sweeping new powers to regulate the broadband industry, saying they would stifle innovation and create a “Mother may I” system for regulating the internet.
The FCC plans a 26 February vote on its proposals, which have received more than 4m comments, making internet regulation the hottest topic of debate in the regulator’s history.
Thune, who is working on regulation that would trump the FCC’s proposals, told an audience in Washington on Wednesday that he has “long been skeptical that the internet needs more regulation to preserve its openness”.
Thune said the FCC proposals were being pushed by an “increasingly imperious president” and that Congress needed to step in.
Speaking at the RebootCongress conference, organised by libertarian technology group Lincoln Labs, Thune said the FCC proposals would give the regulator a “virtually unlimited ability to regulate each and every aspect of the internet system”. For example, he said the regulator would have the power to dictate to companies like Netflix what kinds of services it offered.
Last November, Barack Obama called on the FCC to regulate broadband with the “strongest possible rules” to protect net neutrality – the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally and that internet service providers cannot tilt a level playing field by blocking, slowing or giving preferential treatment to certain services.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is proposing that broadband should be regulated under Title II of the Communications Act, which rules would also give the regulator oversight of mobile broadband. The regulator was forced to rewrite its rules after Verizon won a court case challenging its ability to regulate the industry last January.
Thune said it was “a terrible idea to reverse decade of internet policy to protect net neutrality” using rules designed for the telephone era. “Opening Pandora’s box like this is even worse when Congress stands ready to give the FCC the proper tools it needs. Especially when it can do so in a bipartisan manner.”
Thune said that after the vote, which is expected to pass, he would begin a series of hearing with stakeholders including net neutrality activists, cable companies and tech firms to draw up legislation that would effectively defang the FCC.