The Federal Communication Commission voted Thursday morning to move forward with proposed rules for net neutrality that may affect the concept of an open internet as it exists today.
Led by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the committee agreed by way of a three-two vote during a hearing in Washington, DC early Thursday to open up recently proposed rules concerning the future of net neutrality for comment, effectively allowing interested parties 120 days beginning immediately to weigh in on those recommendations ahead of a final decision expected later this year.
The Wheeler-authored proposal addresses problems that gave way in January when a federal appeals court reversed an earlier ruling, in turn deciding that Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, can legally prioritize some web traffic over others. In response, Wheeler circulated among his committee a notice of proposed rulemaking that addressed the DC Circuit Court of Appeals’ remand of portions of the Commission’s 2010 Open Internet Order and offered “enforceable rules to protect and promote the open internet.”
“Following the court of appeals decision earlier this year, there are no legally enforceable rules ensuring internet openness,” Julie Veach, chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau, acknowledged at Thursday’s hearing.
Wheeler’s proposed rules, the chairman said last month, will mandate in the wake of that appeals ruling that all ISPs “not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.”
“To be very direct, the proposal would establish that behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet will not be permitted,” he wrote on his official FCC blog last month.
Opponents of the chairman’s proposal, however, have voiced concern that approving his recommendations would facilitate the creation of an internet “fast lane” of sorts in which content producers are allowed to pay different rates to deliver websites, streaming videos and other content to consumers, giving them an unfair advantage over small-time companies with comparably meager budgets.
Criticism directed towards Wheeler’s proposal has gained traction in recent weeks, and protesters have been sleeping in tents outside of the FCC headquarters in the United States capital for days ahead of Thursday’s hearing. Inside the building as testimonies were delivered, at least one demonstrator was removed by security after standing up “on behalf of the Internet Generation” and yelling in protest, and both Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn acknowledged receiving “thousands” of letters in recent weeks from concerned Americans. According to Reuters, four people in all were ejected from FCC headquarters during the hearing.
On his part, though, Wheeler has insisted adamantly in the recent weeks since word of his proposal started to surface that those rules would not ravish the concept of a free and open internet, as some critics have feared.
“Nothing in this proposal,” Wheeler said Thursday, “…authorizes paid prioritization, despite what has been incorrectly stated today.”
“The potential for there to be some kind of a fast lane available to only a few has many people concerned. Personally, I don’t like the idea that the internet could be divided into haves and have notes, and I will work to see that that does not happen,” he told the committee.
“I know the importance of openness first hand. As an entrepreneur I have had products and services shut out of closed cable networks. As a [venture capitalist] I invested in companies that wouldn’t have been able to innovate if the network weren’t open. I’ve had hands on experience with the importance of network openness, and I will not allow the national asset of an open internet to be compromised,” Wheeler added. “I understand this issue in my bones. I’ve got scars from when my companies were denied access in the pre-internet days. The consideration that we are beginning today is not about whether the internet must be open, but about how and when we will have rules in place to assure an open internet.”
Nevertheless, his remarks were preceded by dissenting comments from two of the five panel members who said they were not only concerned with Wheeler’s proposal, but at the quickness with which the FCC is moving forward.
“I support an Open Internet, but I would have done this differently,” chimed in Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who nevertheless concurred with Wheeler’s proposal. “Before proceeding I would have taken time to understand the future, because the future of the internet is the future of everything,” she added.
“I support network neutrality,” she said, “but I believe the process that got us to this rule making today is flawed. I would have preferred a delay.”
Elsewhere during the hearing, Commissioner Ajit Pai questioned his own committee’s role in deciding rules for the internet that are destined to have such broad implications.
“The internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand,” Pai quoted former Google CEO Eric Schmidt as saying once. “If this is so, then every American who cares about the future of the Internet should be wary about five unelected officials deciding its fate,” Pai, a former counsel for Verizon Communications, added.
Instead, Pai suggested, the future of net neutrality could perhaps be better decided by reaching out to a panel of economists to conduct a peer-reviewed study that could then be brought before the commission for review.
“In short, getting the future of the internet right is more important than getting this done right now,” he said. “Going forward, I hope that we will not rush headlong into enacting bad rules.”
“We are not confronted with an immediate crisis that requires immediate action,” added Pai, who went on to say that acting in haste would be the equivalent of letting the FCC usurp the role of Congress and make fundamental choices for the internet without as much oversight as possible.
Others, like Commissioner Clyburn, appeared skeptical about some elements of the chairman’s plan, while on the other hand agreeing that, regardless, rules need to be implemented in order to address the appeals court’s remand.
“This is an issue about promoting our democratic values of free speech, competition, economic growth and civic engagement,” she said. “I have chosen to view the court decision in a positive light, for it has given us a unique opportunity to take a fresh look and evaluate our policy.”
Clyburn took her opportunity before her co-commissioners and the FCC crowd on Thursday to acknowledge that this week’s decision won’t instantly change the way the internet operates.
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“We are only voting on proposed rules — not final rules,” she said. “This item is an official call inviting interested parties to comment to discuss pros and cons of various approaches and to have a robust dialogue about the best path forward.”
Speaking of the activists camped outside in southwest DC, Clyburn said, “This is your opportunity to formally make your point on the record. You have the ear of the entire FCC — the eyes of the world are on all of us.”
Those voices have until July 15 to submit comments: “Ample time to evaluate any of the proposals and provide meaningful feedback,” according to Clyburn.