FCC chairman previews strong net neutrality rules

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler today outlined the net neutrality plan he will propose to the agency this week. The juiciest and most controversial part: Wheeler will seek to regulate Internet broadband access as a utility.

“I am proposing that the FCC use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections,” Wheeler writes in an op-ed for Wired published today. “I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC.”

The new plan is dramatically different from the initial proposal Wheeler submitted in May. That plan was blasted by proponents of net neutrality — the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally — as weak; it would’ve essentially given the A-OK to the creation of Internet fast lanes.

Wheeler’s revised proposal would ban paid prioritization — arrangements that create Internet fast lanes —  and prohibit blocking and throttling of “lawful content and services.”

“My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission,” Wheeler writes. The rules would apply to wireless networks also.

Why the turnaround? In the first sentence of his op-ed, former telecom lobbyist Wheeler acknowledged the record-setting “nearly 4 million” public comments his agency has received since his initial proposal. Public advocacy groups and tech giants such as Netflix and Google called for stronger open Internet rules, while broadband providers and others spoke out against regulations that they say would hinder innovation. There was an Internet Slowdown protest. Oh, and President Obama called for reclassification of Internet access under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

“The time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do,” the president said in a statement in November.

In his op-ed, Wheeler addresses the main argument that opponents of net neutrality are sure to make, that the regulations would be a blow to innovation.

“The internet wouldn’t have emerged as it did, for instance, if the FCC hadn’t mandated open access for network equipment in the late 1960s,” Wheeler writes. “Before then, AT&T prohibited anyone from attaching non-AT&T equipment to the network. The modems that enabled the internet were usable only because the FCC required the network to be open.”

Supporters of net neutrality are pleased today.

“The millions of Americans who’ve contacted the commission, members of Congress and the White House to demand net neutrality have won an important battle,” said Common Cause President Miles Rapoport in a press release. “But let’s not kid ourselves; there’s plenty more to do.”

What does that mean? The real action will begin if Wheeler’s proposal is approved come Feb. 26, when the agency is scheduled to vote on it. It’s almost a given that lawsuits from broadband and wireless providers would follow, despite statements by some of them that new rules wouldn’t necessarily hurt investment in networks. (In fact, AT&T has already previewed a lawsuit it would file against the FCC.) As Tim Wu, who’s credited with coining the term net neutrality, predicted, “there will be blood.”

 

Photo: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler at a meeting about the agency’s proposed Open Internet rules on May 15, 2014 at the FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

 

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