WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission passed newly proposed net neutrality rules on Thursday, calling for equal treatment of all legal data traffic on the Internet but leaving room for content providers to pay for prioritized access on the so-called "fast lanes" delivered by Internet service providers.
The outcome was widely criticized by net neutrality proponents who fear that ISPs would use the new rules to justify discriminating against content providers who are reluctant or can't afford to pay for faster lanes. They've called for more stringent oversight measures -- applied to utilities and telephone companies -- to be imposed on ISPs. Comcast, Verizon and other large cable companies that provider Internet access have vigorously opposed any measures that would reclassified them in this manner.
The vote played out on political lines with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, appointed by President Obama last fall, casting the deciding vote after two Democratic commissioners voted in favor and two Republicans dissented.
"If someone acts to divide the Internet between haves and have-nots, we will use every power to stop it," Wheeler said. "I strongly support an open Internet. This agency supports an open Internet although you have seen today that the ability to ensure an open Internet is a matter of dispute."
Throughout its internal deliberations, the hot button for the agency remained whether its new rules should allow fast lanes to consumers' homes, the so-called "last mile," that content providers such as Netflix can buy as long as the same opportunities are available to others on "commercially reasonable" terms.
As proposed, the rules allow for consideration of paid prioritization of data on the Internet.
"A pay-for-priority Internet is unacceptable," said Craig Aaron, CEO of media watchdog group Free Press. "Wheeler spoke passionately about the open Internet, but his rousing rhetoric doesn't match the reality of his proposal."
Wheeler was adamant that his proposals do not lead to fast Internet lanes. But the rules, as they stand today, don't specifically ban them. While taking questions from reporters Thursday, he called for more patience as the agency collects public comments for 60 days before it finalizes the rules on whether to ban them outright.
"There is nothing in this rule in this proposal that authorizes fast lanes," he said. In the the proposal, "we ask the question, 'Should there be a ban on paid prioritization?' Talk to me after we get the input on those questions."
Fear among netizens
Commissioners were met by protesters outside the agency and within the packed hearing room. Several vocal protesters interrupted the proceedings, clamoring support for the FCC to regulate the Internet as a common carrier, as telephone service is.
Democratic commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voted in support of the proposed rules, while Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly were in opposition.
O'Rielly noted that prioritization "is not a bad word," but a necessary aspect of reasonable network management. He opposed the rules because they lead to the "slippery slope of regulation."
Pai recommended that the agency seek out economic studies of the proposed rules but looked at the positive in that the vote resulted in a "bipartisan agreement on net neutrality."
New rules are needed because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in January overturned much of the FCC's current body of rules. A draft of new rules that Wheeler gave to commissioners three weeks ago divided the body — and caused a furor.
Speaking to concerns of those who have come out in opposition to the FCC's rules because of the potential for "fast lanes," Wheeler said that his vision is that as long as consumers were accessing legal content via broadband, "the speed and quality of the connection the consumer purchases must be unaffected."
Blocking of legal content would not be allowed, he said. Should an Internet service provider block access to content or slow the speed below that a consumer has paid for would be "commercially unreasonable" and prohibited, Wheeler said.
And referencing Netflix – the streaming video provider is paying Comcast and Verizon for improved connections – Wheeler said that under the resulting rules he expects it to also be "unreasonable to charge a content provider to use bandwidth a consumer has already paid for."
Also included in the open Internet proposal, the consideration of including wireless Net connections under rules and a dispute resolution process that includes an ombudsperson.
Now begins nearly four months of public comment on the rules before the FCC takes final action.
But, Wheeler says, "there is one Internet. Not a fast Internet, not a slow Internet, one Internet."