Federal Communications Commission officials tried to calm concerns of net neutrality proponents who went into DEFCON 1 status Wednesday night after reports surfaced that the agency would allow Internet providers to charge for priority lanes of traffic.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler penned a blog post Thursday in an effort to explain his new net neutrality proposal, which will be circulated among the other FCC commissioners today in anticipation of a vote May 15.
“To be very direct, the proposal would establish that behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet will not be permitted,” he wrote.
News reports that Wheeler opened the door to allow companies to buy priority lanes to subscribers weren’t wrong. But FCC officials are also trying to shut that door at the same time. They say that proposed priority deals wouldn’t be allowed if they harm consumers or decrease competition.
The agency would institute a case-by-case review of such deals to ensure they’re “commercially reasonable.” The big question remains how the FCC will define that term. In his blog post, Wheeler said that his proposal would “establish a high bar” for that standard.
In a call with reporters, an FCC official today suggested that the agency’s test could very well prevent companies like Google or Netflix from paying for fast-lane access. But it might allow for a company to offer priority access for a heart monitor service for cardiac patients.
The agency isn’t going to enact a flat ban, the FCC official said. Internet providers would be required to offer a baseline level of service. The agency will also look into how to set that standard, he said.
Other parts of the proposal would basically mirror what the agency did in 2010, when it passed its last effort at net neutrality, or Open Internet, rules. No legal content could be blocked. The agency would impose transparency rules on Internet service providers so they have to inform consumers what’s happening with their connections.
The rules also generally wouldn’t apply to wireless broadband networks, except for a provision that would prevent a wireless provider from blocking an app, content or website that offered a similar service to one offered by the carrier.
The FCC’s 2010 rules were also written to prevent legal content and websites from being blocked and to stop Internet providers from unreasonably discriminating against websites or competitors. The rules also allowed for content providers to buy prioritized or specialized services, but the term was pretty vague and the rules basically discouraged their use. The agency’s 2010 Open Internet rules were rejected by a federal appeals court earlier this year.
Wheeler has hinted for months that his new net neutrality proposal would rest on a legal standard that the appeals court suggested would be sufficient to uphold the rules. He has also made it clear in the past that he wasn’t opposed to the idea of a two-sided market, where companies like Netflix could pay for priority treatment.
Nevertheless, FCC officials were scrambling Thursday to respond to the online furor Wheeler’s new proposal created. An FCC official briefing reporters noted several times that the plan was still just a proposal and that the public would have plenty of time to comment on “before decisions are made.”
Three Democratic senators, New Jersey’s Cory Booker, Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, have already expressed concerns on Twitter about the proposal. “The Internet’s rules of the road must not open up fast lanes to those who can pay, leaving others stuck in traffic,” Markey said in a statement.
A White House spokesman said officials there hadn’t seen the proposal yet but reiterated “the president strongly supports net neutrality.” The spokesman added the White House “will be closely following these developments as the FCC launches its proceeding.”
Wheeler said Thursday he wants to get new net neutrality rules enacted before the end of the year.
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