Federal regulators voted Thursday to advance a controversial proposal for new rules that would allow broadband providers to sell content companies fast-lane service to content companies.
The Federal Communications Commission agreed in a partisan 3-2 vote to release Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal for new net neutrality rules, essentially kicking off what’s expected to be a summer of bickering over how the agency should proceed.
Wheeler’s initial proposal, which would allow Internet companies to sell fast-lane service to content companies, sparked such a backlash that he backtracked and the proposal ended up being more of a way of asking questions about what the agency should do.
Four protestors were hauled out by security for disrupting the meeting with speeches in favor of net neutrality rules. More than a hundred net neutrality advocates gathered outside the agency before the meeting began to express their support for stronger net neutrality rules.
“I strongly support an Open Internet,” Wheeler said during the meeting, as he complained that people had misinterpreted his proposal to encourage a fast lane/slow lane Internet. He said that wasn’t his intent.
The FCC’s two Republican commissioners voted against the measure, saying rules aren’t necessary, and Wheeler’s two Democratic colleagues also expressed serious reservations. They voted in favor of making the proposal public.
“I support an open Internet. But I would have done this differently,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic commissioner.
Going forward, the agency “must honor transparency, ban blocking and prevent unreasonable discrimination,” she said. “We cannot have a two-tiered Internet, with fast lanes that speed the traffic of the privileged and leave the rest of us lagging behind.”
Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said “when my mother calls with public policy concerns, I know there is a problem.” She said that although she had concerns about the fast-lane proposal she voted to open it up for public comment since there currently are no net neutrality rules in effect.
Wheeler’s initial proposal for net neutrality rules was based on a part of the law that allows the FCC to pass regulations that would encourage the spread of broadband. Wheeler’s aides initially took that path because a federal appeals court, which threw out the FCC’s last net neutrality rules in January, suggesting that might be a legally-defensible strategy.
Net neutrality advocates disagreed and have pushed the FCC to re-regulate Internet lines under Title II of the Communications Act. That would give the agency clearer authority to police broadband lines.
Phone and cable companies don’t want their lines to be re-regulated and successfully killed an attempt two years ago to do so after their lobbyists swarmed Capitol Hill, the FCC and the White House. Broadband providers are already cranking up their lobbying effort against re-regulation.
Wheeler’s net neutrality now tees up the question of which part of the law to use as the basis for net neutrality rules, guaranteeing that net neutrality advocates and broadband providers will spend the summer fighting over the issue.
“The possibility of a gatekeeper choosing winners and losers on the Internet is unacceptable,” Wheeler said, adding that he was open to the idea of using Title II to regulate broadband lines.
Notably, the FCC’s last attempt at net neutrality rules generally didn’t apply to wireless networks, but Wheeler’s proposal reopens that possibility. It asks for comments about how the agency could use different parts of the Communications Act to impose net neutrality obligations on cellular networks.
That’s a pretty big deal since more Americans are using wireless networks to access the Internet and carriers have generally had wide latitude to restrict access to sites or apps (although it’s usually been on data-heavy services like streaming video).
The FCC will accept public comments on the proposal, which is expected to be released later Thursday. Reply comments would be accepted until September 10.
Here is a fact sheet on the proposal.
You can follow my livetweets on the net neutrality vote here.