[UPDATE 5:28pm EST] In a statement released late on Wednesday, Rep. Henry Waxman announced that he would forgo introducing a controversial net neutrality bill in the lower chambers of Congress because the bill would not have had full bipartisan support in the Committee on Energy and Commerce.
"This development is a loss for consumers and a gain only for the extremes. We need to break the deadlock on net neutrality so that we can focus on building the most open and robust Internet possible," Waxman said in the statement.
Waxman maintained that he wouldn’t close the door on moving the legislation this year, but noted that now didn’t seem to be the appropriate time. "Cooler heads may prevail after the elections," he said.
Waxman’s proposed legislation, which was leaked earlier this week, had been largely criticized for stripping the FCC of any ability to consistently regulate broadband.
It looks like consumer advocates who lamented the Google-Verizon proposal on net neutrality this summer had good reason to worry. It’s expected that Rep. Henry Waxman will soon introduce a net neutrality bill in the House that will mirror key points in the Google-Verizon pact. And while the legislation is being heralded by some as a long overdue effort to put the future of Internet regulation on the congressional agenda, advocates worry that the proposal may do more harm than good by stripping the FCC of any meaningful authority to regulate the Internet.
David Dayen at Firedoglake called Waxman’s bill "truly terrible," while Stephen C. Webster accused the longtime California lawmaker of trying to kill an effort he once spearheaded. Even the Open Internet Coalition (OIC), the nation’s leading coalition of Web-based companies, seems lukewarm about the bill.*
Like the much-maligned Google-Verizon proposal, the House bill to be served up by Waxman stipulates that Internet providers not discriminate against lawful content, but keeps the door open for a deregulated wireless framework–an oversight that could leave millions of users of color who rely on mobile broadband out in the cold.
But perhaps most importantly, Waxman’s proposal effectively strips the FCC of its rule making power altogether. Eliza Krigman writes for the National Journal that the commission would instead deal with enforcement on a case-by-case basis, with broadband providers who violate the law subject to a maximum penalty of $2 million by the FCC.
Just a year ago, Waxman pledged to co-sponsor the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which would have turned longstanding informal principles governing the Internet into law. Calls to Waxman’s office were not immediately returned.
The FCC’s ability to regulate broadband lies at the heart of the open Internet fight. That authority was called into question back in April, when a D.C. court ruled that the commission’s hands were basically tied, due to Bush-era legislation that worked strongly in favor of telecom companies seeking profit over affordability.
Since that ruling in April, the FCC, telecom companies, and consumer advocates have been locked in a slow-moving battle to reclassify broadband from a Title I to a Title II service under the Telecommunications Act. The move would allow the commission to regulate high-speed Internet in the same way it watchdogs television and landline telephone services, including the ability to control costs and drive expansion into underserved rural and urban markets.
Some consumer and civil rights advocates maintain that reclassification is crucial if the FCC wants to implement its ambitious National Broadband Plan, which has a target goal of expanding broadband access to 100 million users over the next decade (currently, just over 60 percent of American households have high speed access).
Still, the underlying question remains: Who really gets to decide the future of the Internet?
In July, Google and Verizon announced their own answer to that question in their joint policy proposal. The two Internet giants had long been on opposite ends of the net neutrality spectrum, with open-Web advocate Google playing the role of industry-insider David to Verizon’s corporate Goliath. The proposal was billed as a hard-fought compromise between the two. But while it did suggest safeguards against paid prioritization of content, it left the door wide open for a deregulated wireless framework–a move that seems to have set the standard for lawmakers.
Frustration has been mounting on all sides, and advocates continually point the finger at FCC Chair Julius Genachowski. Back when he was appointed by President Obama to lead the commission, Genachowski was heralded by net neutrality supporters for his pro-regulatory stance. In recent months, those same supporters have begun to criticize the chair for holding a series of summertime closed door meetings with key industry players, and generally moving too slowly in the reclassification process.
The five member commission would need a majority vote to reclassify, and while commissioners Mignon Clyburn and and Michael Copps have spoken out strongly in favor of the move, Genachowski seems to be the decisive hold out. That wavering has led some to question whether or not he’s qualified for the job.
"It’s a case of the chairman not having a stomach for being a regulator," Joshua Breitbart, a policy analyist with the New America Foundation said in an interview with ColorLines. "It’s not a fun job. You can’t go in and expect everybody to like you. He doesn’t wanna take the heat."
For better or worse, it seems to be Waxman who’s now leading the way.
* An earlier version of this article said that the Open Internet Coalition (OIC) was opposed to the bill. To be clear, the OIC neither supports nor opposes the legislation.