Net neutrality—the principle that no Internet provider can pick and choose which traffic to carry—took a beating just over a year ago when Verizon successfully sued to overturn the FCC’s “Open Internet” rules. Now the FCC is ready to strike back with a vengeance.
In a Wired op-ed, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler outlined his plan to enforce net neutrality by relying on some of the agency’s oldest and most robust authority—Title II of the Telecommunications Act— to categorize Internet service providers as “common carriers” akin to your local phone company. This move would give the agency broad latitude to bar Internet “fast lanes” and other carrier practices that could favor business partners and disadvantage rivals or startups.
The move would also extend similar regulation to wireless networks, which the FCC hadn’t previously attempted to regulate.
“I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC,” Wheeler wrote. “These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services.”
The Gathering Storm
Advocates have long wanted to use Title II to keep service providers in check, and it’s clear now that the FCC will back that strategy. The commission will have a fight on its hands, however. Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are expected to vehemently oppose this proposition; AT&T has already previewed some of the arguments it will use against reclassification.
Offering faster delivery for certain types of services in exchange for fees could help cable and telephone companies prioritize—and therefore ease—the vast throughput of traffic rushing their limited pipes. Notably, it would also pad their coffers.
I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. 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.
Net neutrality can be a complicated affair. On on hand, end users might cheer if they could banish Netflix buffering for good, or have unfettered access to Spotify or other music streaming services without worrying about data caps. However, it’s impossible to overlook the possible consequence of a system designed to benefit certain select services: Smaller innovators who can’t pay for the “fast lane,” as large companies can, could fail before they even get started.
In his statement, Wheeler notes that the rise of the Internet itself wouldn’t have been possible without open-access principles. For instance, he explains that telephone network–based AOL flourished whereas his cable network-reliant startup, NABU, failed. The reason: “The phone network was open whereas the cable networks were closed.”
It’s a striking statement, considering Wheeler’s background. He was once a lobbyist with close ties to the cable industry. Two years ago, his appointment by President Obama to lead the FCC was a curious and controversial move; last year, Wheeler seemed ready to allow Internet fast lanes, albeit circuitously. Now, he’s crossed over to the other side in no uncertain terms.
This Regulatory Move Brought To You By …
For that, thank—in no particular order—comedian John Oliver and President Obama. Last summer, Oliver delivered a viral rampage against the FCC’s cavilling over net neutrality on his show Last Week Tonight, prompting a flood of public complaint that crashed the FCC’s servers.
Then in November, President Obama formally endorsed net neutrality and urged the FCC to utilize its Title II authority to enforce it. While the White House doesn’t have any formal power over the FCC, an independent agency, the president’s advocacy likely emboldened Wheeler and other commissioners.
Through its press secretary, the White House said only that it is “encouraged” by Wheeler’s statement. Its Twitter feed, however, retweeted Wheeler thusly:
#OpenInternet is the greatest engine of free expression, innovation & opportunity the world has ever known. We must protect it now.
— Tom Wheeler (@TomWheelerFCC) February 4, 2015
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