Vjeran Pavic for Re/code
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s newly proposed rules to police Internet lines won’t even be released until next month, and they’re already looking like a political orphan.
Internet activists and key Democratic lawmakers have panned Wheeler’s proposal, which would let Internet service providers sell “express lanes” to Internet content providers willing to pay a premium, even as his aides struggled to explain it. A New York Times editorial Friday blasted Wheeler’s proposal, while a petition asking the White House to stop the FCC attracted more than 14,000 signatures in less than 24 hours.
Net neutrality is the concept that Internet providers can’t block or discriminate among legal Internet traffic. Wheeler has proposed allowing Internet providers charge content providers for faster connections to subscribers on the public Internet. Federal regulators would limit how Internet providers could offer such services, but the proposal sparked an outcry from net neutrality proponents who believe the change guts the concept of an open Internet.
The problem facing Wheeler is simple. Republicans have never liked net neutrality regulation; they feel it’s unnecessary because there have been very few complaints. Democrats, who have consistently supported net neutrality, don’t like this proposal because they object to letting content providers pay for priority delivery.
It’s not clear who is going to defend this proposal other than Wheeler and his staff. Even the White House has kept its distance so far, with a spokesman saying President Obama “strongly supports” net neutrality but declining comment on the plan, since aides there hadn’t seen it yet.
Wheeler’s position is unenviable. His predecessor, Julius Genachowski, suggested re-regulating rules over Internet lines using a law written for old telephone networks. Internet providers, including AT&T, Comcast* and Verizon, launched an all-out war against this idea, saying Genachowski’s plan was too heavy-handed. So Wheeler moved forward with a complicated plan to adjust the rules without re-regulation — the best option, he says.
But consumer groups and Internet activists are vehemently opposed to allowing Internet providers create fast and slow lanes. Several prominent lawmakers expressed alarm at the proposal Thursday, including Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who released a statement saying she had serious concerns about reports of the plan. “Success should be founded on merit and good ideas, not on who has the deepest pockets,” she said. “We must not allow broadband providers to relegate competing ideas, products and services to slow, congested speeds.”
Rep. Anna Eshoo, the California Democrat who has been an ally for Wheeler on Capitol Hill, said she fears “that the latest round of proposed net neutrality rules from the FCC will not do enough to curtail discrimination of Internet traffic, but rather leave the door open to discrimination under more ambiguous terms.”
And while phone and cable companies fare better than they might have if Wheeler had adopted the re-regulation approach favored by Internet activists, Internet providers still don’t want net neutrality rules. “Given the tremendous innovation and investment taking place in broadband Internet markets, the FCC should be cautious about adopting proscriptive rules that could be unnecessary and harmful,” a Verizon spokesman said Thursday, adding that his company and other Internet providers publicly committed years ago to adopting net neutrality principles like letting customers get Internet content the way they want.
Inside the FCC, Wheeler is going to have to convince his two Democratic colleagues, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, to go along with the plan. The agency’s two Republican commissioners aren’t likely to vote for it. After a federal appeals court tossed out the FCC’s last effort at net neutrality rules in January, both Republicans said it was time for the agency to give it up.
It may not be too hard to convince the two Democratic commissioners to release a draft for public comment. Getting their support for actually enacting rules could be a much more significant challenge.
Wheeler said Thursday he wants rules in place by the end of the year.
*Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is an investor in Revere Digital, the parent company of Re/code.