“There is one Internet. It must be fast, it must be robust, and it must be open,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said this morning. And with that, the FCC voted to move forward with a plan that will make the Internet less open.
This is the kind of doublespeak Wheeler has engaged in since early details of his net neutrality plan have emerged — and alarmed big tech companies, startups, venture capitalists, advocacy groups and others, who have spoken out in hopes of saving the open Internet. Despite seemingly contradictory language in a fact sheet put out by the FCC, the plan by Wheeler, who got the 3-2 vote he needed today, would allow broadband providers to charge content providers for faster delivery of their offerings. This is being commonly referred to as the creation of Internet fast lanes. But Wheeler says those broadband companies won’t be allowed to block or slow network traffic.
Here’s an example of why that promise doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. As we’ve written, Netflix in February struck a deal to pay Comcast so the streaming-video provider could ensure smooth delivery of its content. Since then — wouldn’t you know it — Netflix streaming speeds on Comcast have steadily improved. Netflix should be happy about that, right? Oh no. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has spoken out against what he sees as a toll he was forced to pay to Comcast, while Comcast has accused Netflix of previously slowing down its own traffic to prove a point. Netflix has since agreed to also pay Verizon, and other broadband providers are sure to line up with their hands out as well.
Some have said Netflix is a giant and a bandwidth hog and deserves to be charged these tolls. But net neutrality proponents say a company such as Netflix would not have grown to provide its customers with streaming video had it been charged the tolls in the first place. With the creation of Internet fast lanes, startups with little capital might never have a chance to become the next Netflix.
Besides innovation, another big concern of net neutrality proponents: A less open Internet could diminish it as a democratic force. Different tiers of access could limit content available to certain groups and perhaps lead to censorship.
Opponents of Wheeler’s plan are slamming today’s vote, but they’re not giving up. For example, MoveOn said in a statement today that protests in 19 cities around the nation will go on as planned. On Twitter, calls for the public to speak up abound.
The vote today opens the door for what’s effectively four months of public comment. That does provide some room for optimism, for those who are in to that sort of thing. For example, the agency says it will ask the public whether “paid prioritization should be banned outright.” It’s also opening up the discussion of whether broadband should be treated like a utility, which would pave the way for FCC regulation with teeth. (That’s the reason Wheeler is proposing these new rules: Other FCC attempts to enforce net neutrality have been struck down in court because the agency lacked clear authority.) Those who are campaigning for net neutrality are pushing for broadband to be reclassified as a “common carrier.”
And for those keeping track of party politics: The 3-2 vote came courtesy of Wheeler and two Democratic FCC commissioners. The two Republican commissioners voted against the plan because they don’t want the agency to regulate broadband at all. Opponents of net neutrality rules and of reclassifying broadband as a utility insist it is up to Congress to reclassify broadband, not the FCC.
Advocacy groups are urging President Obama, who pledged support for net neutrality during the presidential campaign for his first term, to speak up. “We call on him to keep his word, and add his voice to the chorus of Americans who don’t want to give mega-corporations like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon a green light to discriminate against content they don’t like,” said Rashad Robinson, director of ColorOfChange.Org, in a statement.
Photo: Protesters hold a rally to support net neutrality at the FCC office in Washington, D.C., May 15, 2014. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)