FCC goes aggressive on net neutrality

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Federal officials are moving to regulate Internet service like a public utility, heeding President Obama’s call for an aggressive approach to net neutrality that gives the government more power over the industry.

Tom Wheeler, head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), announced Wednesday that he will be circulating to his colleagues the “strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC,” made up of “enforceable, bright-line rules.”

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The proposal will ban Internet service providers such as Comcast or Verizon from blocking or slowing access to content online. It will also ban “fast lane” deals that speed up online services, and extend the rules to cellphones and tablets for the first time.

“My proposal assures the rights of Internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission,” Wheeler wrote in an op-ed in Wired.

The decision by Wheeler is a reversal from last year, when he was pursuing a plan that critics warned could lead to a “two-tiered Internet,” with some companies cutting deals to operate in the “fast lanes.”

Obama upended the debate in November, releasing a video statement the Monday after the midterm elections that pushed the FCC to embrace reclassification.

While the FCC is an independent agency, Obama’s unusual plea galvanized Democrats and created a furor that prompted Wheeler to delay action on a new proposal.

Republicans blasted the new FCC plan and accused the president of interfering with the agency’s work.

“It is a power grab for the federal government by the chairman of a supposedly independent agency who finally succumbed to the bully tactics of political activists and the president himself,” said Sen John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Commerce Committee.

The White House, for its part, said it was “certainly encouraged” by Wheeler’s proposal, seeing it as “consistent with the view the president articulated” last fall. 

Obama’s support for net neutrality dates back to his 2008 campaign, when he embraced a call from activists to ensure that all Internet data is treated equally.

A first attempt at writing the rules under Wheeler’s predecessor, Julius Genachowski, ended in failure when an appeals court tossed out the regulations on procedural grounds.

The court gave the agency a choice: Scale back the rules, or pursue a new proposal by moving Internet service under Title II of the Communications Act.

The FCC now classifies broadband Internet service as an “information” service, which prohibits the heavier level of regulation that applies to “telecommunications” services such as wired phone lines.

Web activists have questioned that categorization for years, arguing the centrality of the Internet in the economy and everyday life should prompt the FCC to change course.

Public interest in the debate has been high, with a record 4 million public comments submitted to the FCC after the last net neutrality proposal was put forward last spring.

“The Internet must be fast, fair and open,” Wheeler wrote on Wednesday, while harkening back to his past as a venture capitalist and head of a tech startup. “That is the message I’ve heard from consumers and innovators across this nation.”

“The proposal I present to the commission will ensure the Internet remains open, now and in the future, for all Americans,” he added.

Wheeler’s proposal faces significant opposition from Republicans, both on Capitol Hill and within the FCC.

While Wheeler should be able to pass the rules with just the backing of his two fellow Democrats on the commission, the two GOP members are assured to vote against any proposal that reclassifies the Internet.  

In Congress, Republicans are racing to write new legislation that would enshrine in law some net-neutrality protections — such as a ban on blocking, slowing or speeding up people’s access to particular websites — while banning the FCC from treating the Internet like a utility.

GOP lawmakers are especially concerned about the use of the Title II powers, which were written in the 1930s.

“Regulating the Internet through ill-suited and antiquated authorities that were designed for the monopoly phone era will ultimately make the Internet more rigid and less innovative,” Thune said.

The new rules will for the first time apply to wireless service and allow the FCC to investigate deals companies make to hand off online traffic from one provider to another, such as a dispute between Netflix and Comcast last year. 

Major Internet service providers have pledged to sue if Title II authority is used against them, and the legal challenges could take years to wind through the courts.

Democrats and Web activists gave Wheeler’s proposal a resounding endorsement, with Rep. Anna Eshoo (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on communications, calling it a “triumph for the American consumer.”

“All indications point to this announcement as reassuring for the future of the Internet, free speech and American innovation,” added David Segal, the head of the Internet activist group Demand Progress, “because Title II is the simplest, most legally sound way to preserve net neutrality.”

Updated at 8:35 p.m.