This sounds like encouraging news for Netflix and others who say that net neutrality policy should cover deals involving connections to Internet providers such as Comcast and Verizon — not just their last-mile transmissions to consumers’ homes. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says today that he has directed staff to “obtain the information we need to understand precisely what is happening in order to understand whether consumers are being harmed.” The agency has already received copies of Netflix’s deals with Comcast and Verizon and is looking for others. “To be clear, what we are doing right now is collecting information, not regulating. We are looking under the hood. Consumers want transparency. They want answers. And so do I.”
Related: The ABCs Of Net Neutrality
Netflix has said that the large ISPs have effectively held it hostage by charging high fees for the bandwidth needed to transmit video without a lot of delays and buffering. Internet providers say that Netflix wants to hog their bandwidth without paying.
Comcast says it welcomes the new inquiry. “We have long published our peering policies for example, and are open to discussions about further disclosures that would benefit consumers,” says VP Government Communications Sena Fitzmaurice. “We also agree with the Chairman that the broadband consumer should be the focus of this inquiry and not any particular business model.”
Open Internet advocates also applauded today’s announcement. Public Knowledge VP Michael Weinberg says it “will begin to shine a light on this increasingly important aspect of the internet.” But Free Press’ Matt Wood says that the FCC “can’t keep the information it unearths to itself. And if the agency is serious about protecting the public, it also needs to stop discriminatory abuses once they’re disclosed.”
Wheeler’s initiative comes after he took heat for proposing open Internet rules that would allow ISPs to create so-called fast lanes, but restrict their ability to do so. His changes, now up for public comment, tried to balance his desire to revive net neutrality rules within legal limitations cited by a U.S. appeals court that early this year remanded FCC regulations adopted in 2010. The court said that the FCC tied its hands years ago when it classified the Internet as a lightly regulated information service instead of as a common carrier, which the agency would have clear authority to govern. Open Internet advocates want Wheeler to reclassify the Internet as a common carrier, an idea that he says is still on the table.