FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler may have entrepreneurship chops, but what people should be concerned with is his lip service.
The Federal Communications Commission Thursday voted 3 to 2 to adopt new net neutrality rules that would preserve the equal treatment of data online, but leave the door open for content providers to pay more for prioritized, or faster, download speeds.
While the vote largely preserves open Internet standards set up in 2010 by the FCC, it may not outright ban "fast lanes", which fueled added indignation among critics in person and online. The FCC plans to further consider making illegal traffic prioritization of any kind in the days to come.
An Entrepreneur at Heart
Citing his experience as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist whose companies had suffered from non-competitive exclusion by television networks in the days before the Internet, Wheeler said the FCC remained committed to total openness for consumers and businesses on the Internet.
"I have got scars," Wheeler said in Thursday's morning hearing. "As an entrepreneur, I have had products and services shut out of closed cable networks, and as a venture capitalist, I've invested in companies that would not have been able to innovate if these network were not open."
Critics of the proposed FCC rules, which had not been made public as of the writing of this story, fear they will still allow large companies to pay for more robust connections to consumers, as Netflix recently did in a deal with Internet Service Provider Comcast. But evidence of that was not immediately apparent from the hearing today.
"When content provided by firms like Netflix reaches the consumer's network provider, it would be commercially unreasonable to charge the content provider to use that bandwidth, for which the consumer has already paid, and therefore [would be] prohibited," Wheeler said.
Wheeler added that the proposed rules adamantly oppose the idea of ISPs, such as Verizon and Comcast, setting up "fast-lanes" and "slow lanes" for Internet access. And they disallow Internet providers from blocking lawful content, he says, adding that such an idea is commercially unreasonable and a violation of regulations.
The rules, however, address only so-called last mile connections ISPs make to consumers' homes, and not the connections content providers must make through content delivery networks to the ISPs themselves. And it is in this outer rim of the Internet, critics say, that special deals, such as the one Comcast and Netflix made, could proliferate and ultimately affect consumer access.
A Preview of What's to Come
In formulating new regulations, Wheeler said the FCC could rely on Title II and section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. The former would turn ISPs into something of a public utility, subject to expanded oversight and regulation by the FCC.
In January, a federal appeals court, ruling in favor of Verizon in its suit against the FCC, said the FCC may have overstepped its authority in its 2010 Open Internet ruling. It held out section 706, however, as a way forward for the FCC to set policy for the Internet and broadband connections.
Wheeler said that the proposed rules favored increased transparency, and would give the FCC the authority to examine new ISP deals and developments individually, particularly when they might abridge consumer access to the Internet. Wheeler said he also planned to set up an FCC ombudsman that would relieve small businesses and consumers of the burden and expense of retaining their own lawyers to contest alleged abuses.
The FCC proposal now enters an extended public review comment period of 120 days, which is expected to attract tens of thousands of responses. Wheeler encouraged active participation by the public.
Despite the upbeat nature of the vote, Thursday's hearing wasn't without its controversey. Numerous protestors were led out by uniformed guards when they shouted about the need to keep the Internet open. Twitter also exploded with angry commentary from its users.
Said Neil Frick, a twenty-one-year-old from Pittsburgh:
Said JS Free, a self-described feminist:
But that all stands in contrast to Wheeler's impassioned defense of an open, robust, and level Internet.
"I will not allow the national asset of an open Internet to become compromised," Wheeler said Thursday.