By Kate Tummarello - 05/15/14 11:32 AM EDT
The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to move ahead with Chairman Tom Wheeler’s controversial plan to overhaul net neutrality and allow Internet providers to charge websites for faster service.
Wheeler stressed the vote was only a first step and vowed that the agency will not allow people’s Internet services to be slowed down.
“Personally, I don’t like the idea that the Internet can be divided into haves and have-nots, and I will work to see that that does not happen,” he said.
The vote “starts an important process,” he said. “Where it ends, we’ll learn at the end of the process.”
Wheeler’s plan has generated a fierce backlash, particularly among groups on the left that say the agency is abandoning the “net neutrality” principle that President Obama supported during his 2008 campaign. They say allowing the “fast lanes” would end the equal treatment of traffic on the Internet.
White House press secretary Jay Carney in a statement noted that the FCC is an independent agency, but said Obama “is looking at every way to protect a free and open Internet, and will consider any option that might make sense.”
“We will be watching closely as the process moves forward in hopes that the final rule stays true to the spirit of net neutrality,” Carney said.
The FCC is moving to write new net neutrality rules in response to a court decision in January that struck down previous regulations that were enacted under former FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski.
The atmosphere for Thursday’s FCC meeting was tense as a group of protesters gathered outside the building to demonstrate against Wheeler’s plan, and some of those activists were in the meeting room as the commissioners debated it.
Kevin Zeese of Popular Resistance stood up at the outset of the meeting and called the vote “a moment of crisis for our democracy.”
“We want the FCC to do its job and regulate the Internet for the people, not regulate the Internet for the corporations,” he said before being removed by security.
The FCC has already received thousands of letters about Wheeler’s plan, and groups on the left such as MoveOn.org are organizing major petition drives to push the FCC to reconsider.
The pressure is falling hardest on the FCC’s two Democratic commissioners, as Wheeler will need their votes to enact the new regulations.
Citing the backlash, Clyburn said she wants strong net neutrality rules.
“An open Internet means consumers — not a company, not the government — determine winners and losers,” she said.
Rosenworcel criticized Wheeler, saying she “would have done this differently.”
“Before proceeding, I would have taken time to understand the future, because the future of the Internet is the future of everything,” she said.
The FCC was forced back to the drawing board on net neutrality after a court ruled that the agency’s 2010 “Open Internet Order” treated Internet providers too much like traditional phone companies. The FCC considers the phone companies “common carriers,” which allows for heavier regulation.
The court directed the FCC to rewrite its rules using its authority to promote Internet access under Section 706 of the agency’s foundational law.
Wheeler announced in April that he would rewrite the rules under this Section 706 authority in a way that allowed Internet providers to charge websites and online services for better access to users.
His office pledged that the agency would police any arrangements between Internet providers and websites to ensure the deals did not harm consumers or competition.
Additionally, Wheeler said his new rules would prevent Internet providers from slowing traffic to the point where websites and services are unusable.
Democrats on Capitol Hill, tech companies and public interest groups pushed back, worrying that Wheeler’s plan would create a tiered Internet, where deep-pocketed content companies would afford to access consumers while others would suffer in the “slow lane.”
Many net neutrality advocates have pushed Wheeler to abandon his plan and instead reclassify Internet providers as “common carriers.”
In response to the backlash, Wheeler tweaked his plan to toughen the agency’s evaluation of “fast lane” arrangements and to more seriously consider varying degrees of reclassification.
“This item has changed considerably over the last few weeks,” Clyburn said Thursday while thanking Wheeler for “incorporating my many requests.”
Rosenworcel said Wheeler had made “significant adjustments” to his proposal.
“He has expanded its scope and put all options on the table,” she said.
The two Democrats said they voted to move forward with Wheeler’s proposal to begin the official public conversation — since Wheeler’s plan could not be released unless it passed Thursday — and to get net neutrality protections back on the books.
“The feedback up to now has been nothing short of astounding, but the real call to action” will come after the agency’s vote, Clyburn said.
“I sincerely hope that your passion continues. … You have the ear of the entire FCC,” she said.
Wheeler said he welcomes the continued discussion of his proposal and stressed that nothing is final.
“By releasing this item today, those who have been expressing themselves will now be able to see what we are actually proposing,” Wheeler said.
Those with concerns “have been heard,” he said. “We look forward to further input.”
The agency’s two Republicans, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, voted against Wheeler’s plan.
While Democrats have criticized Wheeler for not going far enough in his net neutrality rewrite, Republicans on Capitol Hill and at the FCC have questioned the need to resurrect rules that have already been stricken down in court.
O’Rielly called Wheeler’s attempts to justify net neutrality under multiple authorities “absurd” and said he doubted whether any net neutrality protections are needed.
“Fears that paid prioritization will automatically degrade service for other users, relegating them to a so-called ‘slow lane,’ have been disproven by years of experience,” he said.
Without specific harms to address, Wheeler’s proposed rules “are not narrowly tailored but hopelessly vague and unclear,” O’Rielly continued, pointing to parts of the proposal that require Internet providers to provide a “minimum level of access” and require “fast lanes” arrangements to be “commercially reasonable.”
Pai said Congress, not “five unelected officials” should determine the appropriate role of regulators in the Internet.
“Nothing less than the future of the Internet depends on how we resolve this disagreement,” he said.
— This story was last updated at 3:20 p.m.