Senate Debates Net Neutrality Regs

Sens. Hutchison and Rockefeller square off on joint resolution to nullify rules
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Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) opened debate on the FCC network neutrality rules Wednesday as the Senate took up Hutchison's resolution to nullify the FCC's network neutrality rules.

Hutchison said the issue came down to "bureaucratic overreach into a symbol of American innovation and creativity." Hutchison and Rockefeller were squaring off on the Senate floor over Hutchison's joint resolution to nullify the FCC's network neutrality rules, which are scheduled to go into effect Nov. 20.

The Senate is expected to vote on the resolution Thursday. It has Republican support, but is expected to be voted down by the Democratic majority.

"If the FCC's legal theory is left unchallenged, the FCC will have nearly unbounded authority to regulate almost anything on the Internet," said Hutchison. "It is Congress' role, not the FCC's, to determine the proper policy framework for the Internet."

Hutchison widened the debate to say that the issue was also a more general one about regulatory overreach. "In a larger context, we've been having this debate for 34 months," she said, "and the main theme is this: The Obama Administration's relentless imposition of new and destructive regulations that have frozen our economy."

Hutchison argued that the FCC, itself, could not come up with more than a handful of alleged transgressions the rules were meant to prevent. "In a 134-page regulatory order, the FCC spent only three paragraphs attempting to catalog alleged instances of misconduct," she said. "Even within those three short paragraphs, every alleged problem was addressed under the FCC's existing rules.  Or, it was fixed by the provider under pressure from either the public or the competitive marketplace," she said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in an opening statement before the debate, said the FCC was overreaching to fix something that was not broken, using authority the Congress had not given it. He added that the FCC had not "gotten the memo" from the president about vetting government regs for their impact on the economy. He argued, as did a series of Republicans senators, that the rules would cost jobs -- as many as 300,000 -- deter investment and innovation.   

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) plugged his own app while saying that advancements in technology and broadband access have occurred without the FCC's open internet order. He said it is ridiculous to suggest net neutrality is needed. "We are regulating where regulation is not needed," he said, "which is definitely not how we encourage job creation."

On the other side, Rockefeller said that the rules would instead spur innovation and investment, as well as protecting consumers from having the Internet divided into fast and slow lanes. "I believe that the FCC's effort, along with ongoing oversight and enforcement, will protect consumers.  And I believe it will provide companies with the certainty they need to make investments in our growing digital economy.  While many champions of the open Internet would have preferred a stricter decision -- and I myself have real reservations about treating wireless broadband differently from wired broadband -- I think the FCC's decision was a meaningful step forward," he said.

Rockefeller suggested that the rules were not so much about what had already happened, as preventing what could happen without them. "In a world without a free and open Internet, there would be nothing to stop broadband providers from blocking access to Websites that offer products that compete with those of its affiliates," he said. "In a world without a free and open Internet, companies could pay Internet providers to guarantee that their websites open more quickly than competitors."

Republicans portrayed the rules as an attempt to regulate the Internet by unelected bureaucrats that would stifle investment and innovation and the current openness of the 'net. But Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) called that argument the wolf of Internet gatekeepers in the sheep's clothing of keeping the Internet open.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), one of the more passionate network neutrality supporters, spoke at length about the rules as an issue of protecting small business and not just speech, though he called it the Free Speech issue of our time. Franken said the rules are a way to make sure that the Web site of the local pizzeria loads just as fast as that of a Domino's or Pizza Hut. He argued that the FCC's rules, far from discouraging innovation, allow for the whiz kid in a garage to compete with the biggest players in the space.

Franken pointed out that two Republican FCC chairmen -- Michael Powell and Kevin Martin -- had supported the openness principles that were at the heart of the regs. He said that the rules were not about changing anything, but about keeping the net the way it is and has always been.

Without the rules, he said, imagine a world where a corporation with the biggest checkbook can control what Internet content you get and how fast you get it. Franken said he loved the story of how YouTube, by being the gold standard in online video, was bought out for billions by Google within a couple of years. He said the Googles and Microsofts are not the ones that need network neutrality, but garage innovators with the big idea.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called the net the trampoline for those without power, and the shipping lanes of the 21st century. In both cases, he argued, the FCC's rules allow for that activity to continue unfettered.

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