The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has put his ideas out there for how he sees the future regulation of the Internet, from reclassifying it as a public utility to banning throttling and special “lanes” for paid prioritization of content. But as soon as his proposals formally came out on Feb. 4, a myriad of critics began bashing some of Chairman Tom Wheeler’s key ideas.
For months, Wheeler has been talking publically about the changes he sees for the Internet of the future, including improved regulation and controls that will ensure the freedom and openness of its operation and infrastructure for decades to come.
One of his key proposals is to reclassify the Internet as a public utility, which would then allow the FCC to more easily enact rules for the Internet in the future. The reclassification is needed, according to Wheeler, because of a court challenge that left the issue hanging last year. Verizon had sued the FCC over earlier rules it had passed aimed at net neutrality, with Verizon arguing that the FCC does not have the authority to regulate broadband providers. In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia focused on narrow, technical grounds to overturn the FCC’s rules at that time. Yet despite that court action, the court said that the FCC does have the authority to regulate the Internet.
Wheeler also wants to prohibit the throttling of Internet speeds by service providers as well as the creation of pay lanes for certain traffic by content providers.
“The Internet must be fast, fair and open,” Wheeler wrote in an op-ed piece published online on Feb. 4. “That is the message I’ve heard from consumers and innovators across this nation. That is the principle that has enabled the Internet to become an unprecedented platform for innovation and human expression.”
Wheeler’s proposals will come before the FCC for a vote on Feb. 26.
Critics, meanwhile, quickly began bashing Wheeler’s proposals.
Scott Belcher, the CEO of The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), said the proposal to reclassify the Internet as a public utility is wrong. “While the FCC is staking out ground on the far end of the regulatory spectrum, we believe a much more balanced approach will eventually win the day,” Belcher said in a statement. “We will continue to lead an industry effort to make certain that innovation, jobs and economic growth don’t become casualties of the desire to tighten Internet regulations.”
In time, Belcher said he doesn’t think Wheeler’s proposals will come to fruition. “We’re confident that, when this issue moves to Congress and the courts, utility-style government oversight will be rejected. Many policymakers share our understanding that the current light-handed regulatory approach has spurred tremendous private sector investment in infrastructure and technology. This has led to new jobs and economic growth, and to a flourishing Internet that offers greater access, more choice and higher speeds.”
Mike Montgomery, the executive director of CALinnovates, a group that fosters relationships between government leaders and technology and startup communities, said his group “remains concerned about the application of utility-style regulation of the Internet—regulation that won’t even explicitly ban paid prioritization. What we need more than anything is to have bipartisan and bicameral legislation that affirmatively protects the Internet from throttling, blocking, and paid prioritization that won’t be subject to the political whims of future presidents and FCC chairmen.”
Jay Timmons, the president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, said the utility idea is bad policy. “The Administration’s proposal to impose an 80-year-old regulation on an open and free Internet will chill innovation in manufacturing and disincentivize investment in our broadband infrastructure,” he said in a statement. “We all want faster connections; this would slow us down.”
FCC Chairman Seeks Strong Net Neutrality Rules as Critics Balk
Supporters of Wheeler’s proposals also had things to say about his ideas.
“I am very pleased that Chairman Wheeler’s outlined proposal matches the network neutrality principles ALA and nearly a dozen library and higher education groups called for last July,” Courtney Young, the president of the American Library Association, said in a statement. “America’s libraries collect, create and disseminate essential information to the public over the Internet, and enable our users to create and distribute their own digital content and applications. Network neutrality is essential to meeting our mission in serving America’s communities and preserving the Internet as a platform for free speech, innovation, research and learning for all.”
An open Internet is critical “as a cornerstone for preserving our democracy in the information age,” wrote Young. “We also depend on it to make sure essential library services and content aren’t stuck in an Internet ‘slow lane.’ The educational and public interest benefits of an open Internet are extremely important, and we welcome strong network neutrality protections that will help ensure equitable access to online information, applications and services for all.”
Net neutrality, the idea that the Internet should be accessible to everyone equally without provisions for fast lanes for those willing to pay extra, has been a stated policy of President Obama since he ran for the presidency and was elected to his first term in 2008.
The issue of net neutrality has been a hotbed for several years, with proponents and opponents arguing their positions and bashing the opposition verbally in public forums and discussions.
In September, the FCC announced that it had received a record 3 million comments about proposed rules for net neutrality by a Sept. 15 deadline.
In November 2014, it appeared that Wheeler and Obama had some differences of opinion about net neutrality, according to an earlier eWEEK story. Instead of Obama’s more strongly worded proposal, Wheeler preferred a more subtle approach that would also address the concerns of the companies that provide Internet access to millions of Americans. Obama had earlier said that he wanted to see the FCC adopt Title II as a way to include ISPs in existing neutrality regulations. Title II refers to the Communications Act, which gives the FCC the power to regulate communications in the United States. Title II was originally intended to make sure that telephone companies provided service to anyone in their coverage area.
In October 2014, officials from AT&T, Comcast and Verizon told U.S. leaders that they do not plan to offer faster Internet access, or so-called “fast lanes,” to content producers who are willing to pay more to get their messages out in front of competitors’ transmissions, according to an earlier eWEEK story.