FCC Proposal Angers Net Neutrality Proponents

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says new proposed rules will protect competition, while consumer advocates call them an "insult" to the open Internet.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has previously vowed to protect net neutrality, the principle that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally. But in a new proposal of rules on the topic, following its courtroom defeat to Verizon in January, the FCC has positioned itself as more willing to compromise than intent to take a stand.

While the new draft of the Open Internet Notice on Proposed Rulemaking prevents Internet service providers (ISPs) from slowing down traffic (such as those of services that compete with its own), it does allow companies to pay extra for a bit of a boost.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in an April 24 blog post, objected to unflattering early reports about what the new draft will include and clarified that it will propose:

"That all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network;

"That no legal content may be blocked; and

"That ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity."

Wheeler added that allegations that the new rules will result in anti-competitive price increases for consumers is "unfounded," and that the "'commercially unreasonable' test will protect … harm to competition and consumers stemming from abusive market activity."

Some backers of net neutrality disagree.

"The FCC is inviting ISPs to pick winners and losers online. The very essence of a 'commercial reasonableness' standard is discrimination. And the core of net neutrality is non discrimination," Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group, said in an April 23 statement anticipating the announcement.

Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron, in an April 24 statement, accused the FCC of "aiding and abetting" ISPs "in their efforts to destroy the open Internet."

Aaron continued, "Giving ISPs the green light to implement pay-for-priority schemes will be a disaster for startups, nonprofits and everyday Internet users who cannot afford these unnecessary tolls. These users will all be pushed onto the Internet dirt road, while deep-pocketed Internet companies enjoy the benefits of the newly created fast lanes."

Roots of the Debate

In 2011, Verizon sued the FCC, challenging its Open Internet Order, which presents the tenet of net neutrality.