In a Major About-Face, FCC Chief Proposes 'Strongest Open Internet Rules Ever'

Human Rights

Proposing a titanic legislative shift on net neutrality after a years-long push from internet activists, the head of the Federal Communications Commission has declared his intention to push tough new rules in support of “the strongest open internet protections ever.”

“The internet must be fast, fair and open. That is the message I’ve heard from consumers and innovators across this nation,” FCC chair Tom Wheeler wrote in an editorial for Wired magazine published on Wednesday. “The proposal I present to the commission will ensure the internet remains open, now and in the future, for all Americans.”

Wheeler is set to press for broadband internet to be regulated under Title II of the communications act. The change would mean broadband access will be regulated in a similar way to utility services such as the telephone, water and electricity.

Last May, Wheeler proposed regulating broadband under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, a move supported by the cable companies. Such a policy shift could have allowed cable operators to create “fast lanes” for some users in return for higher fees – a move critics charged would kill “net neutrality,” the concept that all traffic should be treated equally online.

While Section 706 only allows fast lanes that are “commercially reasonable,” Wheeler wrote that he became concerned “that this relatively new concept might, down the road, be interpreted to mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers.”

Wheeler said he now believed the FCC needed to use Title II to protect an open internet. On Thursday, he is expected to release draft orders to his fellow commissioners from the United States’ top telecommunications regulatory agency, ahead of a landmark vote on 27 February.

“Using this authority, 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. 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.”

Wheeler’s proposals come as Republican critics work on their own legislation, which could effectively stymie his efforts. Senator John Thune is proposing legislation that would ban fast lanes and throttling but would not increase the FCC’s regulatory authority over the cable industry.

Last month Thune, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, called Title II a “desperate path” that would upset the “light touch” regulation he said had allowed innovation to flourish online.

Doug Brake, a telecommunications policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an industry lobby group, said the shift to Title II was an “unjustified, overblown response to what has in actuality been a by-and-large hypothetical concern.”

“It is important to see Title II for what it is: a dramatic reversal of the light-touch regulatory policy that has seen the Internet flourish through the tenure of the past five FCC chairmen,” Brake said in a statement.

But activists, who have bombarded the FCC with demands for stronger regulation, continue to charge that cable companies will stifle innovation by “picking the winners” if they are allowed to charge those who can pay more for faster access.

The FCC was effectively left without rules to govern broadband after a court sided with Verizon’s successful challenge to its authority to regulate the industry in January 2014.

Chris Lewis, vice president of government affairs at advocacy group Public Knowledge, commended Wheeler for his support of Title II authority. “This is a historic announcement by chairman Wheeler, and a decision that consumers have been demanding for some time,” he said.

“After a year without rules, it is time for the FCC to act. While I encourage all of the FCC commissioners to carefully scrutinize the proposal’s details, I hope that Chairman Wheeler’s colleagues follow its direction,” Lewis said.

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