Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler will launch a campaign Wednesday to defend his controversial net neutrality proposal, arguing that his critics are wrong and there’s no reason for Internet providers to cheer the proposal, which would allow them to charge extra for fast lanes to consumers.
“Reports that we are gutting the Open Internet rules are incorrect,” Wheeler is expected to tell cable executives gathered in Los Angeles for an industry convention, according to excerpts of the speech released by the agency Tuesday night.
Wheeler will tell cable executives that his “Open Internet rules will be tough, enforceable and, with the concurrence of my colleagues, in place with dispatch.”
An FCC official said the speech was designed to “put to bed misconceptions” about Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal. That’s pretty unlikely given the backlash from Internet activists and public interest groups that the proposal has attracted since some details leaked last week.
Net neutrality activists are just getting started. A White House petition has attracted more than 34,000 signatures in less than a week and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has collected $9,450 in pledges for a billboard in Washington to protest the proposal.
Net neutrality is the idea that Internet providers aren’t allowed to block Internet traffic or discriminate against rivals’ content or sites. The FCC has failed twice to enact restrictions to police Internet providers and prevent them from blocking or slowing traffic. A federal appeals court rejected both of those efforts — most recently in January — saying the agency didn’t use the proper legal authority to impose the rules.
In January, a federal appeals court suggested that the agency could impose net neutrality regulations under a different part of the law. Wheeler’s current convoluted net neutrality proposal was crafted to comply with the court’s direction.
Wheeler has proposed adopting some of the same net neutrality rules the FCC approved in 2010, such as no blocking of legal Internet traffic and greater transparency for consumers. The rules also mostly wouldn’t apply to cellular networks.
But he also proposed allowing Internet providers to sell content providers such as Netflix or Amazon fast-lane service to consumers over the public Internet. That’s new, and the idea has created a huge backlash among net neutrality supporters.
Wheeler will defend the proposal Wednesday, arguing that people are focusing too much on the fast-lane plan without considering the limitations that he’s also proposing. His plan would require Internet providers to show why their fast-lane proposals were “commercially reasonable” and wouldn’t hurt consumers or decrease competition.
“If someone acts to divide the Internet between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ we will use every power at our disposal to stop it,” Wheeler will tell the cable executives, according to the excerpts.
That would include re-regulating Internet lines under Title II of the Communications Act, which was written to cover traditional phone networks, Wheeler will threaten. “Just because it is my strong belief that following the court’s roadmap will produce similar protections more quickly, does not mean I will hesitate to use Title II if warranted,” he’s expected to say.
Wheeler has made it clear in the past he’d prefer not to re-regulate Internet lines and thinks that it’s fine for broadband providers to experiment with new ways of offering services to consumers. But he’s expected to threaten to go down the re-regulation path Wednesday to help convince Internet providers to back his net neutrality proposal as the lesser of two evils.
Wheeler’s predecessor, Julius Genachowski, also proposed re-regulating Internet lines as a basis for net neutrality rules. That idea didn’t last long, however, after phone and cable companies went ballistic and convinced their allies on Capitol Hill and in the Obama administration to help them stop the effort. Genachowski backed down and the FCC went on to enact net neutrality rules that were struck down by a federal appeals court earlier this year.
On Tuesday, Michael Powell, the cable industry’s top lobbyist, warned against re-regulating Internet lines under rules designed for old phone networks.
Regulating the Internet like a utility might sound like a nice idea, but “the potholes visible through your windshield, the shiver you feel in a cold house after a snowstorm knocks out the power, and the water-main breaks along your commute should restrain one from embracing the illusory virtues of public utility regulation,” he said.
The FCC is expected to consider Wheeler’s draft rules next month. If approved, they’ll be released for public comment. Wheeler says he wants net neutrality rules enacted by the end of the year.