It’s been about four months since the Federal Communications Commission’s “net neutrality” policy was struck down by a federal court – for the second time – leaving FCC officials to look for a new policy to guarantee that all online content be treated equally.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled his latest effort in April, which he said was intended to overcome the federal courts’ objections without gutting the underlying policy itself. For net neutrality proponents, Wheeler’s plan came up far short.
Which brings us to yesterday.
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, the chairman of the commission, 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, those considered net neutrality purists, argue that allowing some content to be sent along a fast lane would essentially discriminate against other content.
Part of the problem with the debate is that opposing sides appear, at first blush, to be saying roughly the same thing. Net neutrality supporters say they want an open Internet, and Wheeler says that’s his goal, too. Net neutrality supporters say they don’t want some online content to be less accessible based on corporate arrangements struck by service providers, and Wheeler says he agrees with that, too. Net neutrality supporters say the FCC’s idea unveiled in April needed major changes, and Wheeler says he’s done exactly that.
But as is usually the case, it’s the details that matter – and when it comes to net neutrality, the differences make clear that the policy disagreement is real.
The New York Times editorial board summarized where things stand.
[O]n Thursday, the commission voted 3 to 2 along party lines to consider two options. Under the first option, the F.C.C. would require cable and phone companies to provide their broadband subscribers a basic level of unfettered Internet service. But as long as that condition is met, telecom companies would also be able to charge businesses like Netflix fees to deliver their movies faster to consumers than others.Under the second option, the commission would reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, akin to a public utility. That would allow for more stringent regulation that could prevent companies like Verizon and Comcast from engaging in unreasonable and unjust discrimination. Many consumer advocates like Public Knowledge and legal scholars like Tim Wu of Columbia Law School have recommended this option all along.
As one might imagine, net neutrality proponents prefer the latter.
Yesterday’s vote was an important step in the process, but it’s more the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end.
Indeed, the next phase will feature public comments over the next few months – I’m assuming the volume of comments will be fairly intense – and the FCC members will reconvene later this year to decide between the alternatives.
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The fight for net neutrality enters the next phase