Republicans call on FCC to leave net neutrality to antitrust agencies

Republican lawmakers promote antitrust as an alternative as a way to derail the FCC's efforts

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should leave net neutrality enforcement to antitrust agencies that can bring lawsuits against broadband providers after they see evidence of anti-competitive behavior, some U.S. lawmakers have advocated.

The FCC should abandon its efforts to reinstate its net neutrality rules and instead rely on the Federal Trade Commission or the Department of Justice to police net neutrality, some Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee said during a hearing Friday.

Antitrust enforcement would prevent large broadband providers from discriminating against competitors' Web content, said Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and committee chairman. Net neutrality regulations, he said, could hurt consumers more than help them.

"In my experience, regulation generally stifles rather than facilitates competition and innovation," Goodlatte said.A "In fact, it is my belief that the Internet has flourished precisely because it is a deregulated market."

Congressional Republicans are intent on derailing the FCC's efforts to reinstate net neutrality rules after an appeals court threw out an old version of the regulations in January. Conservative economists and telecom experts have been pushing antitrust law as an alternative to new rules on which the FCC is currently seeking public comment.

Democrats on the committee, along with Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, said the FTC and DOJ can be slow to reaction to antitrust violations. The FCC, the agency designed by Congress to oversee the complex communications industry, is the appropriate agency to deal with net neutrality, said Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat.

Congress "must allow the Federal Communications Commission to do its job," Conyers said.

Antitrust agencies are ill-equipped to deal with the free speech and equality implications of net neutrality, added Representative Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat.

Concerns about an open Internet go "beyond economic concerns like growth and competition," Johnson said. "Openness embraces our very core values as Americans, equality of opportunity."

Net neutrality rules, especially if the FCC chooses to regulate broadband providers as common-carrier utilities, could lead to the agency regulating Internet content, some Republican committee members suggested. The FCC has a long history of regulating what can be shown on broadcast television, noted Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican.

But net neutrality rules, which have been informally in place for about two decades, have gone in opposite direction, with the focus on preserving free speech online, Wu countered. "Net neutrality is not a call for content regulation," he said. "By having a neutral platform, [the Internet] has served as an incredible platform for free and diverse speech."

Wu was the lone witness at the hearing to speak in favor of net neutrality rules enforced by the FCC. Three of the four witnesses for the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee's hearing, including former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, called for the FCC to step aside in favor of antitrust agency enforcement.

"It's success as the fastest growing disruptive technology in human history was the direct result of the [1990s] bipartisan policy to keep the government's hands off of the Internet sector," said McDowell, a Republican. "In short, the Internet is the greatest deregulatory success story of all time."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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