FCC Votes to Propose New Net Neutrality Laws, Open Internet Now Subject to Debate

Commission chair Tom Wheeler vigorously defended his belief in open internet while proposing a policy that could fall short

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler
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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday put the government on a path towards ensuring an open Internet, pleasing almost no one in the process.

As consumer groups and some Hollywood unions, Google, Netflix and Yahoo, warned the FCC wasn’t going far enough, while Internet service providers and Republicans lambasted the FCC for going too far, a sharply divided FCC on a three to two vote approved Wheeler’s proposal for a middle course in regulating the Web.

Despite consumers groups’ concerns, the final proposal offered them some good news. It banned internet service providers from signing exclusive contracts to favor some content providers over others and asked about whether discrimination should be banned entirely.

“There is one Internet, not a fast Internet or a slow Internet,” said Wheeler. “I don’t like to see that the internet cold be defined by the haves and the have nots. Privileging some content to the disadvantage of others is unacceptable.”

“I will not allow the national asset of an open internet to be compromised. It is, not about whether the internet should be open, but about how and when.”

Thursday’s vote kicks off a long process for the FCC. The agency seeks public comment and won’t vote on final rules until this fall. The rules, intended to replace those overturned by an appellate court, won’t take effect until late this year.

The FCC would bar internet service providers from blocking any legal content and impose more open internet restrictions on Web traffic in homes than that over mobile connections, but would ask the public questions about whether to impose far stronger regulations including a ban on internet service providers creating a fast lane for favored content providers. However, it did not include language enforcing such a ban in the proposal, a key absence that many net neutrality crusaders say makes this proposal fall short.

Wheeler’s proposal didn’t do another key thing consumer groups and some Hollywood unions wanted: It didn’t reclassify broadband as “a telecom service.” Consumers groups have argued that broadband’s current definition as an “information service” makes it far harder for the FCC to fight off legal challenges to Open Internet regulations. Wheeler asked for public comment about whether to make the reclassification.

The vote came as FCC commissioners offered sharply divided opinions on the FCC action.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, while supporting the proposal, said she was concerned the FCC’s review of rules was being rushed because of the importance of the Web.

“There is nothing in our commercial and civic lives that will be untouched by its influence or unmoved by its power,” she said.

Commissioner Ajit Pai, who opposed the FCC action, expressed concern that the FCC action could create uncertainty, hurting investment in the Web.

“Every American should be wary about five unelected officials deciding its fate,” he said. He urged that the FCC ask Congress to decide the issue rather than act on its own.