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Sparks Fly at FCC over 'Net Neutrality'

A showdown is on the horizon at the Federal Communications Commission.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski unveiled his latest proposal to regulate broadband Internet service providers Wednesday, stoking the furor of his two Republican colleagues.

FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, blasted out a blistering statement charging the commission with choosing a "highly interventionist course" that he suggested was "beyond its statutory powers to regulate."

McDowell said, "Such rules would upend three decades of bipartisan and international consensus that the Internet is best able to thrive in the absence of regulation."

Republican Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker urged Genachowski to defer to Congress on the matter.

In his speech Monday Genachowski said, in order to "preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet," the proposed FCC measures would forbid Internet service providers from blocking "lawful content" or manipulating "which ideas or companies win or lose on the Internet."

The chairman also announced for the first time that he supports allowing providers to sell premium rates for faster service, which some critics characterize as toll roads favoring the rich at the expense of the poor.

The two Democratic commissioners on the FCC, who have supported similar regulatory efforts, are not offering their opinions on the draft rules just yet, which will continue to evolve over the next 3 weeks. The FCC is scheduled to vote on the proposal Dec. 21. Genachowski needs 3 votes to pass the plan.

Debate over so-called net neutrality has become increasingly heated, pitting opponents of big government intervention against opponents of unregulated corporate rule. Genachowski has been a vocal advocate for instituting net neutrality rules, but the FCC's legal authority was thrown into limbo in April when a federal appeals court questioned the agency's power to regulate an Internet provider's network management practices.

Genachowski's speech Monday asserted that, "protecting Internet freedom will drive the Internet job creation engine," implying the FCC had legal authority to implement the rules because it falls under the Congress' edict to increase nationwide access to broadband Internet.

The plan already faces opposition in Congress. Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson announced Wednesday she will attempt to block any FCC net neutrality order and called on Genachowski to "stand down."

"I have not seen any evidence to date that would justify this regulatory overreach. In fact, the Internet has developed and thrived precisely because it has not been weighed down with burdensome government regulations," she said in a statement issued Wednesday.

"The American people clearly repudiated this type of government expansion on November 2," she said.

The proposal is also getting whacked by those who consider it too weak, specifically because it is more lenient to wireless service providers.

Josh Silver, president of Free Press, which advocates for media reforms, said exempting wireless service providers would give "AT&T and Verizon a free hand to engage in economic discrimination and crush innovation by mobile application developers."

Supporters of net neutrality rules argue that, without government regulation, corporations will manipulate the Internet landscape to favor commercial interests at the expense of equal access to content.

"Real Net Neutrality," wrote Silver in a statement, "means a clear prohibition on paid prioritization, equal protections on wireless and wired networks, and a clear user-focused definitions of broadband access and reasonable network management. But it appears that the current draft order falls short on each of these important aspects, with language that creates loopholes that you could drive a Verizon-Google-sized truck through."