The battle over net neutrality took a new turn when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler announced his intention to reclassify broadband service as a utility as part of a new proposal that will provide “the strongest open Internet protections” possible.
“These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services,” he wrote in an editorial for Wired that served as his announcement, adding that the rules will apply to all broadband providers, including mobile.
Regulators, lawmakers, consumers, industry, and the President have all weighed in on the continuing debate over net neutrality. In January 2014, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC’s prior net neutrality rules as exceeding the scope of its authority. The agency then indicated that it was considering new regulations that would allow for “fast lanes” where Internet service providers afford certain companies preferential treatment by paying for faster service.
A record-setting number of comments were filed on that proposal, the majority in opposition to the proposal. In November, President Barack Obama joined the chorus, calling on the FCC to reclassify broadband service as a utility, a move that would eliminate the possibility of fast lanes.
“No service should be stuck in a ‘slow lane’ because it does not pay a fee,” the President said. “That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth.”
Reversing course, Chairman Wheeler announced the new proposal at the beginning of this month, under which the FCC would reclassify broadband as a utility, specifically a telecommunications service regulated under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. According to a fact sheet from the agency, the proposal would only apply some of Title II’s provisions, such as a prohibition on “unjust and unreasonable” practices, consumer privacy protections, and fair access to utility poles.
The proposal also makes clear that the Title II provisions relating to rate regulations would not apply. Wheeler has said the changes would not add new taxes or fees.
Reaction to the proposal was divided. Broadband providers declared the reclassification unnecessary and potentially harmful, and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) characterized the new plan as a “power grab” by the FCC. On the other hand, consumer advocates praised the move, as did Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who called the new plan “a Declaration of Independence for the Internet.”
To read Chairman Wheeler’s editorial announcement, click here.
To read the fact sheet on the new rules proposal, click here.
Why it matters: The FCC will vote on the proposal – which constitutes the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC – later this month. “My proposal will modernize Title II, tailoring it for the 21st century, in order to provide returns necessary to construct competitive networks,” Chairman Wheeler wrote in his announcement. “The internet must be fast, fair and open. That is the message I’ve heard from consumers and innovators across this nation. That is the principle that has enabled the internet to become an unprecedented platform for innovation and human expression. … The proposal I present to the commission will ensure the internet remains open, now and in the future, for all Americans.”