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.
Pai and O’Rielly condemned the plan, but Wheeler, Rosenworcel, and Mignon Clyburn overruled them in the vote.
“Nothing in this proposal by the way authorizes paid prioritization, despite what has been incorrectly stated today,” Wheeler said Thursday. “Personally, I don’t like the idea that the Internet could be divided into haves and have-nots, and I will work to see that does not happen.”
Wheeler asserted that because the plan establishes a baseline standard for acceptable service, prioritization or paid fast lanes would never be able to degrade service.
“When a consumer buys a specified bandwidth, it is commercially unreasonable … to deny them the full connectivity and the full benefits that connection enables,” Wheeler said. “As a former entrepreneur and venture capitalist, I know the importance of openness. I will not allow the national asset of open internet to be compromised. I understand this issue in my bones. I have scars from when my companies were denied access in pre-internet days.”
Before being confirmed by the Senate to head the FCC last November, Wheeler formerly served as president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA).
Activists camped outside the FCC building for the last week to protest the proposal were greeted by Wheeler and Pai, both of whom came out to hear critics’ concerns. After three protesters were removed from the building’s main conference hall for loudly denouncing the vote, Wheeler scolded the group, saying, “We’re going to move thorough this process today, and disruption doesn’t help getting to the point where the American people can provide input to the process.”
A recent letter from House Republicans warned against approving “antiquated legislation” that would “derail one of our economy’s most vibrant sectors,” and a bill by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is reportedly in the works to strip the FCC of its current authority to regulate broadband competition, and promote net neutrality.
ISPs like Comcast argue carriers have the right to prioritize Web traffic, even in the event the industry was reclassified under the common carrier definition.
“We are not sure we know what paid prioritization, or what a fast lane, is,” Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen said Wednesday. “I believe that whatever it is, it has been completely legal for 15 or 20 years.”
The proposal will now undergo a 60-day public comment period, followed by 60 more days for response in order to meet the agency’s proposed framework deadline by the end of the year.
“Nothing less than the future of the Internet depends on how we resolve this disagreement,” Pai said. “What we do will imperil or preserve Internet freedom. It will promote or deter broadband deployment to rural consumers and infrastructure investment throughout our nation.”
“It will brighten or hamper the future of innovation both within networks and at their edge. It will determine whether control of the Internet will reside with the U.S. government or the private sector. It will impact whether consumers are connected by smart networks or dumb pipes. And it will advance or undermine American advocacy on the international stage for an Internet free from government control.”