Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed new Internet regulations that would allow broadband providers to charge Web companies extra to ensure that their content travels on online “fast lanes.”
The proposal is part of Wheeler's effort to craft new Net neutrality rules that will replace the regulations that were struck down in court earlier this year. But consumer advocates say that deals for fast-lane treatment are incompatible with Net neutrality, given that those deals explicitly call for Internet service providers to discriminate when delivering traffic.
“This rule, if adopted, would cause direct harm to the Internet immediately,” S. Derek Turner, research director at Free Press, tells Online Media Daily.
Free Press and other advocacy groups say that paid prioritization agreements will result in large companies like Netflix paying extra fees to ensure their streams flow to consumers without disruption. But if ISPs prioritize content from companies like Netflix, then other content -- most likely from smaller businesses that can't pay the extra tolls -- will arrive more slowly.
Wheeler's proposal would require that any prioritization deals be “commercially reasonable,” but broadband advocates say that standard gives ISPs a lot of leeway. Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, who coined the term Net neutrality, characterizes Thursday's proposal as a “net-discrimination rule.”
“If enacted, it will profoundly change the Internet as a platform for free speech and small-scale innovation,” Wu writes in The New Yorker. “We take it for granted that bloggers, start-ups, or nonprofits on an open Internet reach their audiences roughly the same way as everyone else. Now they won’t.”
Wheeler also proposed other, less controversial Internet regulations, including a rule prohibiting ISPs from blocking content.
He said in a blog post that none of Thursday's proposals change the goals of the FCC's 2010 neutrality rules. Those rules prohibited all broadband providers from blocking or degrading content, and prohibited wireline -- but not wireless -- providers from engaging in unreasonable discrimination. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down those rules in January on the ground that they treated broadband providers as if they were common carriers.
The FCC will vote in mid-May on whether to move forward with Wheeler's proposal. An FCC representative said on Thursday that Wheeler hopes to enact the rules by the end of the year.
But consumer advocates say they plan to rally against the proposal and urge the FCC to instead reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service. Advocates say that doing so is the only way the FCC can enact anti-discrimination rules. “Hopefully, they'll scrap this and realize they need to reclassify,” says Free Press's Turner.