Federal regulators appear to share one view about net neutrality: It is a good thing.
But defining net neutrality? That’s where things get messy.
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to open for public debate new rules meant to guarantee an open Internet.
Before the plan becomes final, though, commission Chairman Tom Wheeler will need to convince his colleagues and an array of powerful lobbying groups that the plan follows the principle of net neutrality — the idea that all content running through the Internet’s pipes is treated equally.
While the rules are meant to prevent Internet providers from knowingly slowing data, they would allow content providers to pay for a guaranteed fast lane of service. Some opponents of the plan argue that allowing some content to be sent along a fast lane would essentially discriminate against other content.
“We are dedicated to protecting and preserving an open Internet,” Wheeler said immediately before the commission vote. “What we’re dealing with today is a proposal, not a final rule. We are asking for specific comment on different approaches to accomplish the same goal, an open Internet.”
Wheeler argued Thursday that the proposal did not allow a fast lane. But the proposed rules do not address the connection between an Internet service provider, which sells a connection to consumers, and the operators of backbone transport networks that connect various parts of the Internet’s central plumbing.
That essentially means that as long as an Internet service provider like Comcast or Verizon does not slow the service that a consumer buys, the provider can give faster service to a company that pays to get its content to consumers unimpeded.
The three Democratic commissioners on the five-member panel, including Wheeler, voted in favor of opening the plan to public comment. The plan will be open for comment for four months, beginning immediately.
The two Republican members voted against the plan, saying it exceeded the agency’s legal authority. They said that there had been no evidence of actual harm or deviation from net neutrality principles and that elected members of Congress should decide the issue, not regulatory appointees.
The proposal also requests public comments on whether and by how much the commission should tighten regulation of Internet service providers.
President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 promising to enact net neutrality. He said through a spokesman that the administration “will be watching closely as the process moves forward in hopes that the final rule stays true to the spirit of net neutrality.”
The public will have until July 15 to submit initial comments on the proposal to the commission and until Sept. 10 to file comments replying to the initial discussions.
The proposed rules in some cases go beyond those that were included in the commission’s 2010 Open Internet Order, which was struck down this year by a federal appeals court.
Commission staff members explained that the proposal would make Internet service providers do a better job of telling consumers how they manage their traffic, a regulation that was upheld by the court.
It would revive, under a new legal justification, the “no blocking” rule that was struck down by the court. And it would set a “commercially reasonable” standard to judge whether an Internet provider is discriminating against some content.
Certain forms of discrimination would be allowed. Wheeler cited 911 calls or transmission of real-time medical information as examples of applications that broadband providers could subject to preferential service.
The proposed rules would also include an enforcement mechanism and establish an ombudsman to help investigate complaints from the public and provide guidance about the commission’s processes.
SOURCE: Edward Wyatt
The New York Times