Net Neutrality Hinges on Whom to Trust More: FCC or FTC

Debate on maintaining an open Internet where all Web traffic is treated equally turned to whether government enforcement could rely on U.S. antitrust law rather than the communications regulators who have traditionally handled the task.

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee advocated the antitrust option at a hearing today. Democrats said Congress should instead let the Federal Communications Commission proceed with rules proposed last month that may let Internet-service providers like AT&T Inc. charge Web companies such as Google Inc. for faster lanes for their content.

The FCC has received more than 128,000 public comments on its proposal, with critics saying that allowing for paid faster lanes would violate net neutrality, the precept that Internet service providers should treat traffic equally. Republicans have also said the FCC’s plan could lead to unnecessary regulation of the Internet.

Regulation generally stifles competition, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said at today’s hearing of the Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law.

“Vigorous application of the antitrust laws can prevent dominant Internet service providers from discriminating against competitors’ content or engaging in anticompetitive pricing practices,” Goodlatte said.

Regulatory Solution

Antitrust policy is “particularly well suited for tackling complex questions related to broadband competition and addressing the important issues raised in the net neutrality debate,” Joshua Wright, a Republican member of the Federal Trade Commission, told the committee.

Other witnesses at the hearing disagreed, saying the FTC’s antitrust process doesn’t take into account non-economic values such as free speech. Making the FTC the guardian of the open Internet might require “the agency equivalent of a brain transplant,” Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University in New York, told the committee.

FCC rules are needed, said Representative John Conyers, of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

“We need a regulatory solution to address potential threats to net neutrality and must allow the FCC to do its job,” Conyers said.

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