The FCC has voted to start the formal process of establishing new "Net Neutrality" rules. More accurately, the FCC has begun the process of killing the concept of net neutrality in favor of a system that lets broadband providers make money from both sides and charge companies for faster, priority delivery of Internet content.
Tom Wheeler, the FCC Chairman and former telecom lobbyist, pushed forward with a vote to begin the formal consideration process in spite of a backlash against his proposal. The rules are not yet in place--today's vote simply begins a four-month period for public comment providing an opportunity for supporters and opponents to weigh in before the FCC moves forward to actually implement the new rules.
Wheeler has rejected criticism of his plan. He claims that the proposal to allow companies to pay broadband providers for priority access is somehow being misconstrued.
In a recent blog post defending his plan, Wheeler stressed expedience. It seems that even Wheeler recognizes that his proposal is far short of the net neutrality ideal, but he feels that it is something the FCC can do now that fits within the guidance handed down by the court when it sided with Verizon and essentially struck down the previous FCC net neutrality framework. The message of his post seems to be, "This isn't the plan we want, but it's the plan we can get approved."
There is strong opposition to this approach, though--expedient or not. "This is an alarming day for anyone who treasures a free and open Internet--which should be all of us," said Michael Copps, special advisor to Common Cause's Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, in an email.
"Let's be clear. Any proposal to allow fast lanes for the few is emphatically not net neutrality," Copps added. "The clear common-sense prerequisite for an Open Internet is Title II reclassification, guaranteeing the agency's authority to protect consumers and ensure free speech online."
Customers pay broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T for a specified level of Internet access--usually defined by both the speed at which data is transferred and possibly a maximum cap on the amount of data the customer has access to each month. Which sites or services the customer uses, or how that broadband bandwidth is consumed, should not have any bearing on the service. The broadband company is simply providing a pipe to get the data to the customer.
Companies like Comcast and Verizon want to charge services like Netflix an additional toll, though. Netflix is a popular video streaming service, and customers consuming video content from Netflix place a significant burden on the broadband network. That, however, is a problem for the broadband providers to deal with, not Netflix. The broadband customer is already paying for the pipe to get the content, the broadband provider should not also be able to extort money from the sites or services the customers want access to.
Wheeler's assertion that this is not as horrible as we think is based in large part on his belief that as long as he ensures a baseline of "commercially reasonable" access for the masses, that somehow those companies paying for faster priority access don't represent a divided Internet.
The reality is, it doesn't matter if some data is transferred at one rate while other data is throttled or limited, or if most data is transferred at the same "commercially reasonable" rate while other data is transferred faster for companies that pay for it. Both ways, there is a slow lane, and a fast lane, and a divided Internet based on the wealth and privilege of those who can afford to pay the broadband providers.
The clock is ticking. You have four months to express your opinion and concerns to the FCC before a final vote occurs to decide how to move forward. To weigh in, send an email here.