The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Thursday to formally put forward new rules on Net neutrality that may result in a two-tier delivery service to consumers.
The controversial changes being proposed could allow for providers to charge content sites like Netflix for faster service. But it would prevent them from blocking or slowing down certain websites. The proposals were widely anticipated and have been the subject of intense debate in recent months.
Opponents of the new rules staged protests outside the FCC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., with some even camping there in the days leading up to the vote.
Thursday’s 3-2 decision — which fell along party lines, with the two Republicans on the five-member commission objecting to the changes on the grounds that it amounted to overregulation — is not binding and will be followed by a four-month public comment period.
According to the commission, the new rules (PDF) don’t allow for the throttling of Internet speed by Internet service providers (ISPs) as retribution for websites refusing to pay higher fees. However, the rules also don’t specifically ban the creation of speedier tracks for those who do pay.
Public comments on the rules are likely to be heated, with open Internet advocates — including many tech firms — vehemently opposed to changes that allow prioritization of traffic. Meanwhile, many large telecommunications firms are in favor, mindful that it could allow them to charge a fee for handling bandwidth binges at sites such as Netflix and Hulu.
Consumer advocates fear that any resulting costs are likely to trickle down to Internet users.
Along with drawing the ire of tech companies, free speech proponents worry that the new rules will elbow out the voices of political and social minorities, or allow ISPs to purposefully discriminate against certain content.
And since Internet providers have carved up the country into fiefdoms that rarely overlap, customers don’t have much choice. Reports already suggest that Netflix has become suspiciously faster on Comcast connections — following a deal between the expanding streaming titan and the cable company.
“If FCC rules are finally passed that allow for ISPs to discriminate how we access websites by offering an option for Web companies to pay to connect to users at faster speeds, then the way out is to find new ISPs to better serve us,” said April Glaser with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. However, she added, current regulations don't allow customers to "vote with their feet."
The new rules would position the FCC to serve as a referee between online content providers and telecom companies, determining which actions are “commercially reasonable” and establishing an “ombudsperson with significant enforcement authority to serve as a watchdog and advocate for startups, small businesses and consumers.”
There are currently no rules mandating Net neutrality, following a federal ruling in January that found no legal requirement for the policy.
Some open Internet backers want the FCC to classify the Internet as a utility, just like the phone system. Their opponents decry this as an attempt at government regulation of the Internet.
Michael Weinberg, with activist organization Public Knowledge, said what the FCC has floated "remains insufficient to guarantee a truly open and neutral Internet."
Weinberg said the new rules "would create a two-tier Internet where 'commercially reasonable' discrimination is allowed on any connections that exceed an unknown 'minimum level of access' defined by the FCC. A two-tier Internet is anathema to a truly open Internet."
Telecom giant Verizon, whose case against the FCC led to the federal court decision in January, offered a statement that remained mostly agnostic on the FCC’s decision, but included a line showing its contempt for common carrier status — something hashed out in the Communications Act of 1934 that regulated the industry until its 1996 update.
“Verizon has long been committed to an open Internet for a simple reason: our customers demand it,” the company said.
“We look forward to reviewing the FCC’s proposal, and we will be constructively engaged in the months to come. But one thing is clear: For the FCC to impose 1930s utility regulation on the Internet would lead to years of legal and regulatory uncertainty and would jeopardize investment and innovation in broadband. "
Tom Wheeler, FCC chairman and former entrepreneur, voted in favor of the proposed rules, but has stressed that it remains in line with the principles of Net neutrality.
But one of the two dissenters, Ajit Pai, criticized the measure as government intrusion on the Web. His Republican colleague on the commission, Michael O’Reilly, called it a “regulatory boondoggle."
Wheeler, however, defended his approach.
“I will not allow the national asset of an open Internet to be compromised. I understand this issue in my bones. I’ve got scars from when my companies were denied access in the pre-Internet days,” Wheeler said.
“The consideration that we are beginning today is not about whether the Internet must be open but how and when we will have rules in place to assure the open Internet,” Wheeler said ahead of the vote.
But details of how that will work remain sketchy.
“What it seems they’re trying to do is use a grab bag of different authorities to try and please everyone on both sides of the aisle," said Janus Kopfstein, an Internet culture writer who has watched the regulatory spat unfold. "It’s unclear how that’s exactly going to end up.”
To activists demanding that the FCC reclassify Internet services, today’s decision was disappointing but not surprising.
“They need to face up to Comcast and other telecom companies. And do what’s right for the public interest,” said Kevin Zeese, a Baltimore-based activist with PopularResistance.org, which staged a camp-out in front of the FCC.
“The public is very serious about this and does not want to see the corporatization of the Internet,” he added.