Despite weeks of protests and petitions from members of Congress, thousands of Internet users and fellow Federal Communications commissioners, the FCC voted Thursday to accept Chairman Tom Wheeler’s new ‘net neutrality’ Internet regulation proposal, which will allow Internet service providers to establish fast and slow lanes for Web traffic.
Thursday’s vote is the first step in a larger, months-long process during which the FCC will shape new rules governing ISP’s handling of Web traffic, which will potentially allow them to charge high-bandwidth Internet content creators like Netflix more money to provide acceptable service speeds, among other controversial proposals.
The commission has been the recipient of so much heat since announcing the proposal last month, Wheeler was forced to try and make some concessions in a Monday announcement aimed at easing the censorship and regulatory concerns expressed by lawmakers, advocacy groups, and Internet users. Despite Wheeler’s assurances that the agency will not allow Web traffic to be segregated, most reported seeing few, if any, changes.
According to FCC officials, the proposal’s new language seeks to prevent larger ISPs like Comcast from making “special terms” deals with high-bandwidth content creators like Netflix, and will analyze whether ISPs can slow access speeds to non-paying sites and services without such arranged deals.
Wheeler’s new draft voted through Thursday also includes protection for startups and companies that need Internet connectivity, but cannot afford to pay additional higher costs for access, and establish a representative with “significant enforcement authority” to defend startups in disputed cases.
The fight began in January when a federal court shot down long-standing rules in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowing the agency to regulate ISPs, and told the agency it was treating the providers too much like common communications carriers. According to reports, Wheeler has kept the option of reclassifying ISPs as common carriers on the table to keep the providers from abusing the industry with special traffic speed deals.
Were they to be reclassified, the FCC would have more broad power over regulating the industry to maintain what Wheeler described Thursday as “One Internet. Not a fast Internet, not a slow Internet; one Internet.”
While liberal commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel states Wheeler made ”significant adjustments” in the most-recent version to ease fears, conservative commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly claim they were kept in the dark in regard to the changes, and last week asked Wheeler to delay the vote.
“Some would like to regulate broadband providers as utilities under Title II of the Communications Act. This turn to common-carrier regulation would scrap the Clinton-era decision to let the Internet grow and thrive free from price regulation and other obligations applicable to telephone carriers,” Pai wrote in a dissenting statement Thursday.
The Republican commissioner said he believes former President Bill Clinton and Congress established the correct precedent with the 1996 legislation, which said U.S. policy should “preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet . . . unfettered by Federal or State regulation.”
Pai described Wheeler’s plan as “a lawyerly one that proposes a minimal-level-of-access rule and a not-too-much-discrimination rule. It also allows for paid prioritization under unspecified circumstances.”
“To date, no one outside the building has asked me to support this proposal,” Pai said.