Update: Key Dem lawmakers call for rewrite of 1996 Telecom Act
Update: With letter from 74 Democratic lawmakers to FCC Chairman, opposing plan to redefine broadband.
Key Democratic lawmakers said Monday that they are seeking to update communications laws, a move aimed at clarifying murky interpretations over federal oversight of the Internet.
In a brief statement, Congressional Commerce Committee chairmen Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said they would "start a process to develop proposals" to update the Communications Act. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the communications subcommittee and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the communications subcommittee, joined in the announcement.
The lawmakers said that starting in June, they will invite stakeholders to participate in bipartisan meetings to address issues and concerns over federal oversight of Internet services and businesses. They said their offices would release a list of topics for discussion and details on how they will go about updating the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
The move comes amid increased uncertainty over the government's role as watchdog for Internet service providers such as AT&T and Comcast as well as the software and services that ride over those pipes such as Google's search engine and social networking site Facebook. The Federal Communications Commission announced earlier this month that it would redefine broadband networks -- the pipes owned by Verizon and Time Warner Cable -- as telecommunications services after a federal appeals court cast fresh doubts over the agency's ability to regulate Internet access providers. The Federal Trade Commission enforces consumer protection laws that hold social networking sites and applications such as Google's Street View accountable when user privacy is violated. But the agency isn't a rule-making agency in the same way the FCC is, and some privacy and consumer advocacy groups have urged Congress to give the FTC more muscle to create rules for Internet applications, which are largely unregulated. The FTC can create rules but the burden of carrying them out is heavier.
A Senate staffer, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the announcement is a recognition that current law doesn't reflect the changing landscape of the Web- and mobile-centric communications landscape. The staffer said the move was meant to complement the FCC's broadband reclassification proposal. The lawmakers don't intend, as proposed by some network operators, to preempt the FCC's plan.
Some of the questions expected to be raised revolve around what agencies oversee Internet applications such as Facebook, Skype and Google. Google's Street View data collection from WiFi networks raised fresh questions over whether that episode touched on communications oversight and privacy protections, for example.
The FCC declined to comment on the announcement. But in a blog post in early May, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, argued that the agency has oversight of the transmission component or broadband services -- in other words, the pipes that push through bits and bytes through the Web.
"Consumers do need basic protection against anticompetitive or otherwise unreasonable conduct by companies providing the broadband access service (e.g., DSL, cable modem, or fiber) to which consumers subscribe for access to the Internet," Genachowski wrote. "It is widely accepted that the FCC needs backstop authority to prevent these companies from restricting lawful innovation or speech, or engaging in unfair practices, as well as the ability to develop policies aimed at connecting all Americans to broadband, including in rural areas."
A change in communications law will surely upset constituents on many sides. In 2006, lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to update the 1996 Act, an effort that largely fell apart over a disagreement whether net neutrality should be included in a legislative rewrite.
Tom Tauke, executive vice president of Verizon Communications, has called for an overhaul of communications law. But he's also called for a light regulatory touch (as has Google CEO Eric Schmidt).
Meanwhile, dozens of lawmakers expressed their opposition to the FCC's plan. In a letter sent Monday to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, 74 Democratic lawmakers described reclassification of broadband as a "distraction."
"The expanded FCC jurisdiction over broadband that has been proposed and the manner in which it would be implemented are unprecedented and create regulatory uncertainty," the lawmakers said. Here's a copy of the letter from NetCompetition.org.
May 24, 2010; 3:54 PM ET
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