House Votes Against ‘Net Neutrality’
By EDWARD WYATT
Published: April 8, 2011
WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives approved a measure on Friday that would prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from regulating how Internet service providers manage their broadband networks, potentially overturning a central initiative of the F.C.C. chairman, Julius Genachowski.
The action, which is less likely to pass the Senate and which President Obama has threatened to veto, is nevertheless significant because it puts half of the legislative branch on the same side of the debate as the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in restricting the F.C.C.’s authority over Internet service.
House Joint Resolution 37, which was approved by a vote of 240 to 179, was spurred by the F.C.C.’s approval in December of an order titled “Preserving the Open Internet.” The order forbids the companies that provide the pipeline through which consumers gain access to the Internet from blocking a user’s ability to reach legal Internet sites or to use legal applications.
But Republicans in the House maintained that the order exceeded the F.C.C.’s authority and put the government in the position of overseeing what content a consumer could see and which companies would benefit from Internet access.
“Congress has not authorized the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the Internet,” said Representative Greg P. Walden, an Oregon Republican who sponsored the resolution.
The F.C.C. order “could open the Internet to regulation from all 50 states,” Mr. Walden said, and was little more than the Obama administration’s attempt to use the regulatory process “to make an end run around” the Court of Appeals ruling.
Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, warned of dire consequences should the resolution be approved. “This is a bill that will end the Internet as we know it and threaten the jobs, investment and prosperity that the Internet has brought to America,” Mr. Waxman said.
It is likely that Democrats in the Senate can defeat the measure, but by no means is that certain. The joint resolution was initiated under the Congressional Review Act, meaning that it cannot be filibustered and requires the support of only 30 senators to bring it to the floor.
President Obama courted Silicon Valley supporters during his campaign by promising to enact a “net neutrality” provision, as the F.C.C.’s order is known. Advisers to the president have said that he will veto the resolution; it would then take a vote by two-thirds of each house of Congress to override the veto.
In addition to opposing the F.C.C.’s order in Congress, some broadband providers, including Verizon, have said they will challenge the order in court. Those challenges can begin once the regulations become final, in a few months. Last year, the appeals court ruled that the F.C.C. did not prove it had the authority to sanction another major Internet provider, Comcast, for blocking access to the file-sharing service BitTorrent.
During the debate on Friday, each side accused the other of safeguarding the interests of big companies. Democrats said that Republicans were protecting the interests of the cable and phone company giants that are the dominant providers of broadband Internet service to American households. Those companies generally oppose the F.C.C. order, because they believe they need to be able to direct traffic on their networks as they see fit.
Republicans countered by accusing Democrats of protecting big technology companies, like Google, Amazon and Netflix, that have become successful because of the lack of Internet regulation but which now want to protect their turf from new competitors.
Each side in the debate also accused the other of adopting the position of totalitarian regimes in Iran and China by favoring limitations on Internet sites that people can view. Republicans said the F.C.C.’s Internet order formalizes government control of the Internet, giving it the power to determine winners and losers among Internet start-ups.
Democrats, in turn, said that without the F.C.C.’s open Internet policy, broadband companies that also own content providers, like Comcast’s ownership of NBC, would be free to block the Web sites of competitors. Six Democrats voted with the majority on the resolution, while two Republicans voted against the bill.
Few of the debaters raised some of the more technical issues that are at the center of the debate over broadband regulation, like specialized services and tiered rates. Specialized services, for which a broadband company uses part of its Internet pipeline to deliver dedicated services to specific customers, worry regulators who fear that companies will invest more to develop those more profitable offerings while neglecting to update basic broadband service.
Representative Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, said during the debate that supporters of the F.C.C.’s order wanted “to give the F.C.C. power over business plans,” by restricting the ability of broadband service companies to offer tiered service, for which customers pay based on the amount of Internet bandwidth they use.
Just as a customer at a fast-food restaurant pays more for a large Coke than for a small one, Mr. Terry said, Internet companies should be free to charge customers more if they consume a greater amount of bandwidth because of heavy use of features like streaming video.