Here's why the issue is so important: When the FCC last month decided to start regulating Internet providers more closely under net neutrality, it turned them into what the agency calls "common carriers." But the FTC's congressional charter carries an exemption for common carriers — a provision that effectively prevents the FTC from taking enforcement actions against such firms and reserves that right for the FCC.
Senior FTC officials have complained that the FCC's new rules would put Internet providers out of their reach — and rob the FTC of the ability to protect consumers.
"If an entity is a common carrier providing common carrier services, we can't bring actions against them," said Republican FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen in September.
The common carrier exemption has become a source of friction between the two agencies. And whether consumers are better off when Internet providers are policed by clear rules laid out by the FCC, or overseen on a case-by-case basis by the FTC, has been a core part of the wider net neutrality debate.
Top officials from the FTC and FCC on Wednesday endorsed ending the "common carrier exemption" in the FTC's congressional charter. Asked by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) in a House Judiciary Committee hearing whether they would support congressional efforts to end the ban, FTC Commissioner Terrell McSweeny and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler — both Democrats — said they would.
"That idea is definitely worthy of review," Wheeler said. "We should work in tandem with the FTC. It's a great one-two punch."
"There are slightly different tools in the FCC toolbox and in the FTC toolbox," McSweeny said, "which is why I support repealing the common carrier exemption in the Federal Trade Commission Act."
Wheeler has also had separate conversations with McSweeny and FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez on the issue, he said Thursday.
"I actually called [Ramirez] yesterday," Wheeler said. "She was in Berlin, and as I had also talked to Commissioner McSweeny to say, this is a topic that clearly is going to require congressional approval to get any changes."
The FCC and FTC are currently working on how to cooperate more. In recent months, the two agencies have announced a number of enforcement actions together.
This isn't the first time officials have considered ending the FTC ban on regulating common carriers. In 2003, then-FTC Chairman Timothy Muris told lawmakers that the exemption "dates from a period when telecommunications services were provided by government-authorized, highly regulated monopolies."
But Republicans are warning that letting the FCC regulate the industry with rules on one hand and the FTC with antitrust lawsuits on the other could unnecessarily complicate things.
"What the [FCC's net neutrality] order does is take conduct the antitrust law generally presumes is pro-competitive," said FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright during the hearing, "and declares them illegal and anticompetitive in all circumstances."