A sharply divided FCC on Thursday voted 3 to 2 to make net neutrality the law of the land, siding with Chairman Tom Wheeler’s suggestion and President Obama’s call to take strong action to preserve the Internet’s essential openness.
The decision capped a decade-long fight by net neutrality supporters for government protections to prevent big companies from getting too much control of the Web.
Much stronger than an initial proposal offered by Wheeler last May, the final rule bans Internet service providers from blocking, throttling or using paid prioritization to give favored content a competitive edge for either wired or mobile connections. It also could allow the FCC to examine complaints about the distribution procedures and pricing Internet providers charge Netflix and other content providers.
The FCC’s Democratic majority also sought to boost the agency’s chance of sustaining court challenges of the rules by reclassifying Internet connections as “common carrier services.” Republicans have ripped the FCC’s plan to use “telegraph-era” “utility-style” to regulate the 21st-century Internet.
The FCC is expected to face quick court challenge, with the biggest immediate question being whether opponents can obtain a temporary stay to prevent the agency from enforcing the new rules or have to wait far longer for any court decision to have an impact. Republicans in Congress said Thursday they plan to move forward with legislation in which Congress, not the FCC, sets net neutrality’s terms.
The FCC made the decision after commissioners heard several last-minute personal pleas, including one from Venus Sud, executive producer of “The Killing,” a series that originally aired on AMC, but found additional life on Netflix after being canceled on AMC.
Sud told commissioners that the extended life allowed the show to tell some of its best stories and that the Web represents an opportunity to be used to fill “the pent-up demand by the American public tired of seeing the same old, same old …”
As Internet service providers gain the opportunity to become gatekeepers and charge for faster services, only the FCC action and reclassification “can secure the open Internet,” she said.
Wheeler and Democratic commissioners said the regulation was essential to preserving an open Internet.
“No one, whether government or corporations, should control the Internet,” Wheeler said. “The Internet is too important to be left without rules and a referee on the field.”
He called the vote a “red-letter day.”
“Broadband providers have the technical ability and incentive to act to inhibit the freedom of the Internet,” he said. “The Internet is too important to allow broadband providers being the ones making the rules.”
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the FCC was acting to ensure that those with empty pockets have the same opportunity to reach consumers over the Web as those with deep pockets.
The FCC’s GOP commissioners decried the decision.
“We are flip-flopping for one reason and one reason alone: President Obama told us to do so,” said Commissioner Ajit Pai. Suggesting the agency was “rubber stamping” a White House plan, he called Obama’s suggestion “not the solution to a problem. His solution is the problem.”
Pai said the decision will cost consumers money and decrease investment in the Internet infrastructure.
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly suggested the order came from Obama’s desire to pursue “a larger political cause mostly unrelated to technology” that he labelled “disgraceful.” He called the net neutrality action a “usurpation of Congressional authority.”
“This Administration went so far beyond what has ever been attempted, and its inappropriate interference in the Commission’s activities will forever change this institution,” he said. He called the final rule, “half-baked, illogical, internally inconsistent” and an “indefensible” document.
Internet service providers questioned the FCC’s action.
Michael E. Glover, Verizon’s senior VP for public policy and government affairs, in a statement called the FCC’s action “a radical step that presages a time of uncertainty for consumers, innovators and investors” and warned it cold have “unintended consequences.”
“The FCC today chose to change the way the commercial Internet has operated since its creation. Changing a platform that has been so successful should be done, if at all, only after careful policy analysis, full transparency and by the legislature. It is likely that history will judge today’s actions as misguided,” Glover said.
Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior EVP, posting in the company’s public policy blog lamented what he said was the FCC’s pursuit of a divisive choice, rather than a compromise choice. He said AT&T will seek a compromise choice.
“Today an administration and an FCC that appeared headed toward another bipartisan win on net neutrality were driven instead to a partisan fight,” he said. “Instead of a clear set of rules moving forward, with a broad set of agreement behind them, we once again face the uncertainty of litigation, and the very real potential of having to start over — again — in the future.
“This may suit partisans who lust for issues of political division, but it isn’t healthy for the Internet ecosystem, for the economy or for our political system. And, this will do long-term damage to the FCC as well.”
Net neutrality advocates were quick to praise the FCC.
“Today’s vote is the biggest win for the public interest in the FCC’s history,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of consumer group Free Press. “It’s the culmination of a decade of dedicated grassroots organizing and advocacy. Millions of people came to the defense of the open Internet to tell Washington, in no uncertain terms, that the Internet belongs to all of us and not just a few greedy phone and cable companies.”
Fight for the Future co-founder Tiffiniy Cheng said advocates’ success should serve as a warning,
“This is our free-speech struggle in the digital age. Institutions of power should know by now: Internet users will not stand idly by while anyone tries to take their freedom away. And when Internet users come together to fight for something they believe in, nothing can stop them.”
The FCC’s action drew immediate comment in Congress.
“The Obama Administration needs to get beyond its 1930s rotary-telephone mindset and embrace the future,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor. “That means encouraging innovation, not suffocating it under the weight of an outdated bureaucracy and poorly named regulations like this one.”