House Republicans on Friday challenged the existing framework for how net neutrality rules are set and enforced. At a hearing held by the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust law, the Republican members said the Federal Trade Commission, not the Federal Communications Commission, should have authority when it comes to net neutrality.
Net neutrality, which requires ISPs to allow all legal content to move through networks uninhibited, has made waves on the Hill since the FCC proposed a rule that would create “fast lanes” for companies that can pay more.
House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte said the Internet has grown because it is deregulated, but noted companies should not be permitted to engage in “discriminatory or anticompetitive activities.”
“I believe that vigorous application of the antitrust laws can prevent dominant Internet service providers from discriminating against competitors’ content or engaging in anticompetitive pricing practices,” the Virginia Republican said. “Furthermore, antitrust laws can be applied uniformly to all Internet market participants, not just to Internet service providers, to ensure that improper behavior is prevented and prosecuted.”
The Republicans’ call for a shift to the FTC is likely spurred by the FCC’s history of questionable commitment to net neutrality, with some criticizing the agency for backtracking on the issue in recent years. In May, Rep. Bob Latta introduced a bill that would “limit” the FCC’s ability to regulate the Internet.
During the hearing, both former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell and FTC member Joshua Wright said that antitrust laws were better equipped to promote net neutrality than the FCC.
House Democrats opposed the Republicans’ push on the polarizing issue. The Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. John Conyers, applauded the FCC’s attempts to rewrite its rules.
Congress “must allow the Federal Communications Commission to do its job,” the Michigan member said.
Columbia Professor Tim Wu, who created the term “net neutrality” and testified at the hearing Friday, said the government’s concerns when it comes to net neutrality should extend beyond the jurisdiction of antitrust regulatory agencies because of the potential implication net neutrality has for freedom of speech. ISPs could potentially block websites, such as politically controversial sites or news sources.
“I have the highest admiration for the antitrust laws,” Wu said in his testimony. “But I simply don’t think they’re equipped to handle the broad range of values and policies that are implicated by net neutrality and the open Internet.”
Rep. Darrell Issa took a combative tone in questioning Wu and said the FCC could apply “the rules of the road for broadcast” to the Internet. He argued the FCC already blocks profane and obscene content from television and said if the agency had full reign when it came to net neutrality, such limits could be applied online.
“You can’t put what some people consider pornography on broadcast television, can you?” the California Republican said. “On the Internet today it is limited today to only criminal acts.”
Wu disagreed, and said net neutrality rules allow an “outpouring of speech from across the political spectrum.”