U.S. government regulators should depend on antitrust laws to protect broadband customers, instead of the network neutrality rules the U.S. Federal Communications Commission passed in December, Republican members of a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee said Thursday.
The FCC overstepped its congressional authority when it prohibited broadband providers from selectively blocking Web content and applications, said Representative Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Internet subcommittee.
The FCC's rulemaking power is limited to the authority given to the agency by Congress, said Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican. "The FCC acts unconstitutionally when it exceeds its limited power," he said. "Congress has never given the FCC the authority to impose this sort of top-down regulation of Internet services."
The net neutrality regulations could slow investment in broadband networks and hurt FCC efforts to bring broadband to all U.S. residents, Goodlatte said. "You don't grow an industry by regulating it," he said.
Goodlatte and other subcommittee Republicans suggested that existing antitrust and unfair-business-practices laws are enough to protect broadband customers. An antitrust-based approach, focused on anticompetitive blocking by providers, "will best protect a competitive, innovative and open Internet," Goodlatte said.
But antitrust enforcement can take years to resolve, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. "Antitrust enforcement is expensive to pursue, takes a long time and kicks in only after damage is done," he said. "Especially for startups in a fast-moving area like the Internet, that's not a practical solution."
The net neutrality rules were a compromise supported by many venture capital firms, Genachowski said. "Some people think the framework we adopted doesn't go far enough, others think it goes too far," he said. "I believe it gets it right."
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 gives the FCC authority to pass rules that apply to broadband providers, he added.
The Republican-controlled House voted in April to strike down the net neutrality rules, but President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the legislation, should it pass through the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Goodlatte and Representative Ben Quayle, an Arizona Republican, asked Genachowski why the net neutrality rules are needed in a competitive broadband industry.
About 70 percent of U.S. residents have only one or two wired broadband providers, Genachowski said. "I would agree with your point that the more there is competition, the less there is need for government involvement," he said.
Some critics of the net neutrality rules have framed the debate as being between large Web content providers like Google and large broadband providers like AT&T, said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat. Many broadband providers voiced support for the rules, with the fight still "inexplicably" in Congress, she said.
"I don't worry about Google; they've got plenty of money," Lofgren said. "I worry about the startup that could be squashed or killed in the cradle ... if we don't have a free and open Internet."
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 e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.