In an unusually passionate meeting that included multiple disruptions from protesters, the FCC today approved Chairman Tom Wheeler’s delicately crafted proposed rule-making plan for net neutrality policy in a 3-2 vote on partisan lines. “What we’re dealing with today is a proposal, not a final rule,” he says adding that it’s an issue “I understand in my bones.” The agency is “dedicated to protecting and preserving an Open Internet” and will continue to consider mechanisms to protect it — including the possibility of reclassifying the web as a so-called Title II common carrier service, making it easier to regulate. Today’s vote begins a four month period when the public can comment on what should be in the rules that the FCC ultimately adopts.
Wheeler’s proposal follows a January ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for DC to vacate the net neutrality rules the FCC adopted in 2010. Justices said that the agency had overstepped its authority — in part because it had classified the Internet as an information service, subject to light regulation.
The FCC chairman says that the fastest way to get new net neutrality rules is to stick with the current classification arrangement. He challenged those who’ve said that regulations without such a reclassification might allow Internet providers to create special fast lanes, giving entrenched interests an advantage over small and independent services. For example, Wheeler says the FCC currently has the authority to insist that ISPs alert the agency when they plan to change policies so regulators can review them. “I call it the rat out rule.” The FCC also can limit what it considers “commercially unreasonable” practices, which would include transmitting some services at slower speeds than the ones for which consumers pay. Wheeler said that peering — where content providers’ transmissions enter the local ISP — is “a different matter that is better addressed separately.”
Comments from other commissioners made it clear how difficult it was to reach today’s agreement. One of the FCC’s Democrats, Jessica Rosenworcel, said that she merely “concurs” with the proposal. “The future of the Internet is the future of everything,” she says. “I would have taken more time for input…We cannot have a two-tiered Internet.” Fellow Democrat Mignon Clyburn was more supportive but still says that she supports “a different legal structure” to ensure that the Web isn’t controlled by “corporations rather than a level competitive playing field.”
The FCC’s two Republicans opposed Wheeler’s proposal. Ajit Pai said that the agency should have asked Congress to decide what to do, and called on the FCC to ask 10 economists (two from each commissioner) to study the options. “We must do better than the process that led us here today,” he says. Michael O’Rielly added that the FCC hasn’t even established that it would be a problem if some companies could pay for speedy transmissions — and that government rules might “stifle investment.”
Internet providers said that there’s no need to worry — or to reclassify the Internet. Comcast EVP David Cohen says his company “remains committed to a free and open Internet and working with the FCC on appropriate rules for all players across the industry.” And Verizon EVP Randal Milch says that the telco “has long been committed to an open Internet for a simple reason: our customers demand it.”
But consumer and activist groups say that they will continue to press for reclassification. “This will be the summer of net neutrality,” says Public Knowledge’s Michael Weinberg. “Net neutrality supporters will make it clear to the FCC and Congress that only robust net neutrality rules that prevent paid prioritization, grounded in clear Title II authority, will suffice.”