Liberal backlash threatens plan for Internet ‘fast lanes’

Getty Images

The political left is pressuring the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission to abandon his plan for “fast lanes” that would allow Internet providers to charge websites for preferential treatment.

Liberal groups and Democrats on Capitol Hill say FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s attempts to revise the net neutrality proposal do not go far enough and are demanding that he retreat from it.

ADVERTISEMENT
The opposition is mounting as the FCC prepares Thursday to take the first step toward considering the new rules in a preliminary vote.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has 76 members, said it planned to send Wheeler a letter Wednesday asking him to reclassify Internet providers as “telecommunications services.”

That move — long advocated by Democrats, public interest groups and most tech companies — would allow the FCC to regulate Internet providers in the same fashion as telephone companies.

Wheeler has said the option of reclassifying Internet providers has always been on the table, but many experts have warned that the maneuver would be difficult to pull off.

Internet providers and congressional Republicans have warned the FCC not to reclassify the companies, but in a shift from 2010, few Democrats are speaking out against that option.

“We’re seeing something totally different now,” one Democratic House aide said. “Maybe there’s a little more political space for the FCC to pursue this.”

Reclassification is not the route Wheeler focused on earlier this year, when he first announced that he was proposing new net neutrality rules.

Under his proposal, Internet providers would be able to charge services that use a lot of bandwidth, such as Netflix and Skype, for faster data speeds.

Critics say the fast lanes fly in the face of the agency’s original rules, which kept Internet providers from blocking or slowing access to certain websites. A federal court struck down those rules in January.

Initially, Wheeler defended his proposal, pledging that the agency would ensure the fast lane agreements are “commercially reasonable” and don’t harm consumers or competition. 

His office pledged to rewrite the rules to keep Internet providers from slowing access to a website or service to the point where it can’t be used as intended.

Additionally, Wheeler lifted some of the agency’s transparency rules to allow interest groups and citizens to continue to file comments on his announced plans in the run-up to Thursday’s meeting.

But those assurances did nothing to assuage critics, who have signed petitions, filed comments and sent letters to Wheeler accusing him of failing to protect the open Internet.

In addition to the written complaints, some net neutrality advocates have begun protesting outside of the FCC’s headquarters ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

In response to the backlash, Wheeler’s office this week began circulating a revised net neutrality proposal that more seriously considers reclassification.

According to an FCC official, the revised proposal “clearly reflects public input the commission has received” and “is explicit that the goal is to find the best approach to ensure the Internet remains open and prevent any practices that threaten it.”

While the initial proposal raised questions about whether to reclassify Internet providers, the questions get “a lot more prominence” in the revised item, according to one person familiar with the proposal.

Additionally, the revised plan raises questions about partial-reclassification proposals that have been put forward by Internet nonprofit Mozilla and academic Tim Wu, who is credited with coining the term “net neutrality.”

With his newest proposal, Wheeler is “trying to adjust his initial proposal to address the concerns of the FCC and Hill Democrats,” according to telecom analyst Paul Gallant, managing director at Guggenheim Securities.

While Wheeler has said for weeks that all of the options, including reclassification, were in the mix, the newest version has “expanded that discussion” to make it “more balanced conversation” about the different options, he said.

According to Gallant, Wheeler’s flexibility indicates that he views Thursday’s vote “as the beginning of the debate and not the end.”

Critics aren’t satisfied.

Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge, said his group is “still concerned that the FCC is considering some kind of paid prioritization,” even if the newest proposal takes reclassification “much more seriously.”

Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press, said he is “glad that they’re asking more questions” about reclassification but wants the agency to stop “clinging to the compromise” of not reclassifying.

“There’s no other option left at the FCC,” he said.

Even if Wheeler sets a standard for the proposed fast lanes that protects consumers and competition, a future FCC could remove those protections, Wood said.

“That’s the problem with a very malleable standard that is applied after the fact.”

Still, Wheeler’s revisions mean that “the pressure is definitely working, and we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

With the battle lines drawn, all eyes are on the commission’s two Democrats, Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn.

With the agency’s two Republicans expected to vote against Wheeler’s plans, the chairman needs the Democrats’ votes to move forward with rewriting the net neutrality rules.

If Wheeler’s plan passes on Thursday, the proposal will be made public and opened up for comment.

While the two Democrats have expressed their concerns, they could “vote for the NPRM [notice of proposed rule-making] because they support the idea of going forward with public comment,” Gallant said.

Others predicted Thursday’s vote could end in defeat for Wheeler. 

“I think that it’s much more of a close call,” Wood said.