The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who’s going to sue the FCC over net neutrality? Probably the cable lobby.

Michael Powell, president and chief executive of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, left, speaks during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing with Chad Dickerson, chief executive of Etsy Inc., in Washington. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

A top lobbyist for the cable industry is signaling that his organization will probably sue the government over its proposed net neutrality rules when the time comes.

Although board members at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association haven't resolved to sue, it's "highly likely" the trade group would join a lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission, said NCTA president and chief executive Michael Powell.

"I think it's just too dramatic, too serious a change not to ask the court to review the propriety of what the commission did," said Powell, in a forthcoming interview with The Washington Post on C-SPAN's "The Communicators," "particularly when so much of it rests on whether it had the authority to do it in the first place."

The FCC will vote Feb. 26 on a controversial proposal to apply strong new rules to Internet providers. The draft regulation, which is modeled after the same legal tool used to oversee phone companies, would seek to ban discriminatory treatment of different Web services such as Netflix and Amazon. The aggressive rules are sought by consumer advocacy groups and President Obama, who have argued that strong oversight is the only way to preserve a free and open Internet.

Critics of the plan have called it a politically motivated "power grab" by the federal government that could lead to regulation of the prices Internet providers charge consumers. It could also result in the regulation of end-user services such as Google and Facebook, they warn.

Republican opponents of the proposal have also demanded that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler release his draft rules to the public weeks ahead of the agency's vote. Powell — a former Republican chairman of the FCC — said Thursday that he would comply with the request if he were in Wheeler's shoes.

"The chairman's correct in saying that past practice is generally not to do so," said Powell. "But it's also equally true that nothing prevents him from doing so should he choose."

Powell is partly responsible for kickstarting a lengthy fight over net neutrality. In 2005, his commission approved a series of Internet principles that were later used by other FCC chairs against a number of companies, including Comcast.

Several court battles later, the FCC is about to vote on the strongest rules ever for Internet providers. It's expected to be a partisan affair, with the commission's three Democrats supporting the move over objections from the agency's two Republicans and from conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Powell said that when he initially proposed his open Internet principles, he didn't anticipate the political firestorm that net neutrality has become.

"The goal was, a little bit, to shoot across the bow of industry and say these are the things American consumers really come to value," said Powell. "Engineer faithfully to them, and you will prosper, they will prosper and there'll be no need for the government to play a heavy regulatory role."

The forthcoming interview with Powell will air on C-SPAN Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern.