Neutrality Advocates Petition FCC To Reclassify Broadband

The American Civil Liberties Union, Writers Guild of America and Ms. Foundation for Women are among a broad array of groups petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to take steps to preserve net neutrality.

“Right now there is no one protecting Internet users from ISPs that block or discriminate against online content,” the petition states. “Companies like AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Verizon will be able to block or slow down any website, application or service they like. And they’ll be able to create tiered pricing structures with fast lanes for content providers and speakers who can afford the tolls -- and slow lanes for everyone else.”

Specifically, the groups are asking the FCC to reclassify Internet access as a telecommunications service. Doing so will enable the FCC to require Internet service providers to follow the same common carrier rules that have long prohibited telephone carriers from picking and choosing which calls to put through.

The petition, which has so far garnered more than 1 million signatures, comes in response to the recent D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision striking down the 2010 net neutrality rules. Those regulations prohibited broadband providers from blocking or discriminating against lawful content, services or apps.

The appellate court said that the FCC can't impose common carrier obligations -- including anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules -- on “information” services. The FCC classified broadband as an information service in 2002.

Neutrality advocates now say the FCC should simply reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications” service, which would be subject to common carrier rules. Among those pressing for the reclassification is former Commissioner Michael Copps. “Without this step, we are playing fast-and-loose with the most opportunity-creating technology in all of communications history,” he writes “Without this step, we are guaranteeing an Internet future of toll-booths, gatekeepers and preferential carriage.”

But observers say that any attempt by the FCC to reclassify broadband will face huge political hurdles.

For his part, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hasn't publicly ruled out reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service, but some of his recent comments suggest he's not eager to do so. This week, he said that the FCC will take a case-by-case approach to problems with Internet delivery. "We believe that markets should be innovative and at the same point in time, we are not reticent to say, 'Excuse me, that's anti-competitive. Excuse me, that's self-dealing. Excuse me, this is consumer abuse,'" Wheeler reportedly said at the State of the Net conference in Washington.

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