Internet access debate unleashes firestorm

Getty Images

An avalanche of net neutrality comments have been dumped on the Federal Communications Commission, highlighting the passions stirred over whether Internet service providers like Comcast should be allowed to charge companies more money for quicker delivery of their movies and television shows.

The 670,000 comments — many of them laced with profanity — are about half the number of complaints the FCC received when Janet Jackson’s breast flashed across tens of millions of televisions on Super Bowl Sunday.

ADVERTISEMENT
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency is “mining through” the submissions from lawmakers, content providers, public interest groups and citizens who have seen fit to tell the FCC what is on their mind.

“There’s a lot of late-night oil,” Wheeler said last week in response to a question about how the agency is processing all of the opinions, which it will continue to comb through Tuesday.

Wheeler incited a firestorm in April when he unveiled his plan to rewrite rules governing content delivery on the Internet. Under his original plan, Internet providers could charge websites for better access to users.

The FCC has been collecting public comments since May, when it voted to move ahead with Wheeler’s plan, opening a 60-day comment period.

Critics slammed the plan, saying it could create a tiered Internet where only deep-pocketed websites could afford to access the “fast lanes” while others languished in the slow lanes.

John Oliver, the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” even described Wheeler as a “dingo” in a mocking report of the FCC rules that noted Wheeler once served as head of the cable industry’s trade group.

“The guy who used to run the cable industry’s lobbying arm is now running the agency tasked with regulating it,” Oliver said.

“That is the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo,” he joked, a reference to the pop culture line born of the 1980s Australian tragedy involving an infant being taken by a dingo.

Wheeler, when asked about the TV segment, said Oliver’s commentary was “creative, it was funny” and indicated the wide public interest in the issue.

“I would like to state for the record that I am not a dingo,” he said. “I had to go look it up. It’s a feral wild animal in Australia.”

Facing a backlash from public interest groups and Democrats on the commission and in Congress, Wheeler broadened his plan to put more emphasis on other options, including changing how Internet providers are regulated.

If the FCC were to reclassify Internet providers as “telecommunications services” — as opposed to their current classification as “information services” — it would be able to more easily regulate the companies like it does telephone companies.

Reclassification is seen as an uphill political battle, and Republicans have offered legislation that would prohibit the agency from doing it. But support is growing among Democrats.

“Reclassification is the best way to for us to preserve the Internet as an unfettered tool for communication and the sharing of ideas,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote in a Friday Facebook post.

He has signed on to Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-Mass.) letter urging the FCC to move forward with reclassification. Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also support it, aides said. 

In a separate statement late Monday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also pushed the FCC to reclassify providers.

“This does not mean over-regulating the Internet,” he said, pushing back on Republican concerns. “It means using a scalpel to deal with a specific market failure that threatens the public interest.”

On the other side of the issue, the Internet providers are pushing the FCC to take up rules with a “light” regulatory touch as to not interfere with the growth of the Internet economy. 

In a blog post Monday, prefacing comments to be filed with the FCC on Tuesday, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association representing cable companies such as Comcast, Time Warner and Cox Communications doubted the need for new rules at all. 

“We remain skeptical that new rules are necessary to achieve that result, but if new rules are considered, we feel strongly that they should be built within a framework that encourages continued investment and innovation in broadband networks,” the group said.

The group also pushed back on calls for reclassification, which would “be misguided from a policy perspective” and “likely fail to survive judicial scrutiny.”

Tech companies — through their trade group, the Internet Association — are asking for broader new rules. The group includes Google, Netflix, Amazon and Facebook.

They want new net neutrality protections preserving access to the Internet to be extended to cellphone networks. The rules also should protect websites when they fight with Internet providers over traffic, the group said.

In its comments to the agency, the Internet Association asked the FCC to intervene when Internet providers abuse “interconnection deals,” which websites make to connect to Internet providers’ servers for more direct access to users.

“Interconnection should not be used as a choke point to artificially slow traffic or extract unreasonable tolls from” websites, the group said in comments filed Monday. 

While the original rules did not address interconnection deals, public interest groups have pressured the agency to examine them as it rewrites net neutrality rules.

Last month, Wheeler announced his agency would be investigating the deals after a few high-profile disputes involving Netflix, a member of the Internet Association.

The group commended the FCC for looking into the largely unexamined interconnection deals and asked that the agency “be prepared to exercise its authority to prevent any abuse that it uncovers.”

Interconnection deals became a hot-button issue earlier this year when Netflix publicly decried deals it made with Comcast and Verizon to bypass traditional middleman companies in the hopes of boosting users’ streaming experience.

While Internet providers say the interconnection deals are in the best interest of both companies and their customers, Netflix has publicly opposed the deals. 

In its comments, the Internet Association warned that Internet providers’ abuse of interconnection deals with websites could harm consumers as much as directly blocking or slowing a user’s access to those sites.

“Consumers could effectively end up with a ‘fast’ lane and a ‘slow’ lane, despite the fact they are paying for the same quality and speed of broadband service, based on whether companies are willing and able to pay such additional interconnection fees,” the group said.