Republican lawmakers pledged to try to overturn net-neutrality rules adopted Thursday by U.S. regulators, as a long-running battle over the handling of Internet traffic shifts to Congress and the courts.
The Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to adopt a sweeping measure to ensure all Web traffic is treated equally. The vote fulfilled a goal of President Barack Obama and supporters who say rules are needed to preserve the Internet as an open medium.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said lawmakers would try to stop what he called the FCC’s “misguided scheme.” In the Senate, John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, called on Democrats “to join a bipartisan effort.”
“The fight to keep the Internet unburdened from regulatory overreach is far from over,” Thune, chairman of the Senate’s commerce committee, said in a statement. All five FCC commissioners have been invited by Thune to testify March 18 at an oversight hearing.
A Republican alternative proposal foundered last month for lack of support from Democrats, who hold enough votes to block the measure in the Senate. Eleven Democratic senators issued a joint comment Thursday calling the FCC’s action “decisive.”
“I support the FCC’s action and will work to preserve these rules,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader.
Any law passed by Congress to overturn the rules would need the support of Democrats to overcome a probable presidential veto.
The new regulations bar companies such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. from blocking or slowing online traffic, or offering faster service in return for payment. Broadband providers said the regulation risks stifling a fast-growing medium and will lead to rate regulation, and predicted lawsuits will be filed.
David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, the largest U.S. cable company, said the FCC action portends “inevitable litigation and years of regulatory uncertainty.”
“We believe that the best way to avoid this would be for Congress to act,” Cohen said in an e-mailed statement.
The FCC vote, which also brought wireless service under net neutrality rules, was “disappointing and unnecessary,” Meredith Attwell Baker, president of CTIA-The Wireless Association, a Washington-based trade group with members including AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc., said in an e- mailed statement.
Baker said Congress needs to act, and AT&T’s Senior Executive Vice President-External and Legislative Affairs Jim Cicconi in a statement called for a consensus solution and “hopefully bipartisan legislation.”
“Democrats right now are playing it cool in Congress,” said Paul Gallant, a Washington-based analyst with Guggenheim Securities. “But once the lawsuits are filed, the prospect of a court loss becomes tangible — and at that point I think we get some real negotiations on a net neutrality bill.”
The FCC’s rules use extensive utility-style powers crafted to govern phone companies.
That’s a change from a lighter approach adopted a decade ago when the agency had a Republican majority. Whether the FCC properly switched to the stronger basis for authority will be among issues in expected court challenges.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat appointed by Obama, said that by claiming strong authority, the FCC had addressed the shortcoming identified by a court that voided previous net neutrality rules last year.
“We have addressed that issue,” Wheeler said. “That gives me great confidence.”
The FCC vote seeks to settle more than a decade of debate about whether the Internet should be a highway offered to all users on equal terms, or whether broadband providers can levy fees and restrict access.
The agency debated the rules behind closed doors before its public meeting, and didn’t say when it would release the text that is more than 300 pages. The rules take effect 60 days after being published in the Federal Register.
In an expansion of its authority, the agency claimed power to judge whether Internet service providers offer fair terms for accepting Web traffic from the likes of video streamer Netflix Inc. and data shippers such as Cogent Communications Holdings Inc. and Level 3 Communications Inc.
The new rules also let the FCC judge mobile deals that exempt services such as music streaming from counting against subscribers’ data caps. The agency can accept complaints and might ban an anti-competitive plan.
Venture capitalists had told the FCC the deals violate the concept that all Web traffic should receive equal treatment. T- Mobile US Inc. said its Music Freedom offering, which streams songs that don’t count against data caps, helps it stand out from competitors.
“The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free and open access to the Internet,” Wheeler said.
The vote “imposes intrusive government regulations that won’t work to solve a problem that doesn’t exist using legal authority the FCC doesn’t have,” said Ajit Pai, a Republican commissioner who campaigned against the rules in TV and radio appearances and on social media.
Among the spectators attending the FCC meeting for the vote was Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak, who said the action is “an indication that the people can sometimes win.”
“This is a victory for the people, the consumers, the average Joes,” Wozniak said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
Internet companies such as Netflix and Twitter Inc. had sought the rules to keep access to Internet subscribers open.