The End of a Free Internet? FCC Votes in Internet 'Fast Lanes'

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Thursday to formally put forward new rules on net neutrality that may result in a two-tier delivery service to consumers.


The controversial changes being proposed could allow for providers to charge content sites like Netflix for faster service. But it would prevent them from blocking or slowing down certain websites. The proposals were widely anticipated and have been the subject of intense debate in recent months.

The 3-2 split decision — which fell along party lines with the two Republicans on the five-member commission objecting to the changes on the grounds that it amounted to overregulation — is not binding and will be followed by a four-month public comment period.

It is likely to be the subject of a heated consultation period, with open Internet advocates — including many tech firms — vehemently opposed to the changes. Meanwhile many large telecommunications firms are in favor, mindful that it could allow them to charge a fee for handling bandwidth binges at sites such as Netflix or Hulu.

Consumer advocates fear that any resulting costs are likely to trickle down to Internet users.

The new rules will set up the Commission as a referee between online content providers and telecom companies, determining what actions are “commercially reasonable.”

There are currently no rules mandating Net neutrality, following a federal ruling in January that found no legal requirement for the policy.

Some open Internet backers want the FCC to classify the Internet as a utility, just like the public phone system. Their opponents decry this as an attempt at government regulation of the Internet.

Michael Weinberg, with activist organization Public Knowledge, said what the FCC has floated "remains insufficient to guarantee a truly open and neutral Internet."

Weinberg said the new rules "would create a two-tier Internet where 'commercially reasonable' discrimination is allowed on any connections that exceed an unknown 'minimum level of access' defined by the FCC. A two-tier Internet is anathema to a truly open Internet."

Tom Wheeler, FCC chairman and former entrepreneur, voted in favor of the proposed rules, but has stressed that it remains in line with the principles of Net neutrality.

But one of the two dissenters, Ajit Pai, criticized the measure as government intrusion on the Web. His Republican colleague on the commission, Michael O’Reilly, called it a “regulatory boondoggle."

Wheeler, however, defended his approach.

“I will not allow the national asset of an open Internet to be compromised. I understand this issue in my bones. I’ve got scars from when my companies were denied access in the pre-Internet days,” Wheeler said.

“The consideration that we are beginning today is not about whether the Internet must be open but how and when we will have rules in place to assure the open Internet,” Wheeler said ahead of the vote.

But details of how that will work remain sketchy.

“What it seems they’re trying to do is use a grab bag of different authorities to try and please everyone on both sides of the aisle," said Joshua Kopstein, an Internet culture writer who has watched the regulatory spat unfold. "It’s unclear how that’s exactly going to end up.”

To activists demanding that the FCC classify Internet services, today’s decision was disappointing but not surprising.

“They need to face up to Comcast and other telecom companies. And do what’s right for the public interest,” said Kevin Zeese, a Baltimore-based activist with PopularResistance.org, which staged a camp-out in front of the FCC.

“The public is very serious about this and does not want to see the corporatization of the Internet,” he added.

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