Telecommunications regulators Thursday formally proposed new "net neutrality" rules that may let Internet service providers charge content companies for faster and more reliable delivery of their traffic to users.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has come under fire from consumer advocates and technology companies for proposing to allow some "commercially reasonable" deals in which content companies could pay broadband providers to prioritize traffic on their networks.
Wheeler's two fellow Democrats at the FCC concurred with him for a 3-2 vote to advance the proposal and begin formally collecting public comment, though they expressed misgivings about the plan.
"I believe the process that got us to this rulemaking today is flawed. I would have preferred a delay. I think we moved too fast to be fair," said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
"The real call to action begins after the vote today," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. "This is your opportunity to formally make your points on the record. You have the ear of the entire FCC. The eyes of the world are on all of us."
Critics worry the rules would create "fast lanes" for companies that pay up and slower traffic for others, although Wheeler has pledged to prevent "acts to divide the Internet between 'haves' and 'have nots.'"
The FCC's proposal tentatively concludes that some pay-for-priority deals may be allowed, but asks whether "some or all" such deals should be banned and how to ensure paid prioritization does not relegate any traffic to "slow lanes."
"I will not allow the national asset of an open Internet to be compromised. I understand this issue in my bones," said Wheeler, formerly a private equity investor and cable industry lobbyist. "There is one Internet, not a fast Internet or a slow Internet. I don't like to see that the internet cold be defined by the haves and the have nots. Privileging some content to the disadvantage of others is unacceptable."
"Simply put, when a consumer buys a specified bandwidth, it is commercially unreasonable and thus a violation of this proposal to deny them the full connectivity and the full benefits that connection enables," Wheeler said.
More than 100 activists protested at the FCC, with signs reading "Liberate the Internet" and "Keep the Internet Free." four onlookers were escorted out of the meeting room for shouting protests.
'There is one Internet'
Thursday's vote kicks off a long process for the FCC. The agency seeks public comment and won't vote on final rules until this fall. The rules, intended to replace those overturned by an appellate court, won't take effect until late this year.
The FCC would bar internet service providers from blocking any legal content and impose more open internet restrictions on Web traffic in homes than that over mobile connections, but would ask the public questions about whether to impose far stronger regulations including a ban on internet service providers creating a fast lane for favored content providers. However, it did not include language enforcing such a ban in the proposal, a key absence that many net neutrality crusaders say makes this proposal fall short.
Wheeler's proposal didn't do another key thing consumer groups and some Hollywood unions wanted: It didn't reclassify broadband as "a telecom service." Consumers groups have argued that broadband's current definition as an "information service" makes it far harder for the FCC to fight off legal challenges to Open Internet regulations. Wheeler asked for public comment about whether to make the reclassification.
FCC commissioners offered sharply divided opinions on the FCC action.
Commissioner Rosenworcel, while supporting the proposal, said she was concerned the FCC's review of rules was being rushed because of the importance of the Web.
"There is nothing in our commercial and civic lives that will be untouched by its influence or unmoved by its power," she said.
Commissioner Ajit Pai, who opposed the FCC action, expressed concern that the FCC action could create uncertainty, hurting investment in the Web.
"Every American should be wary about five unelected officials deciding its fate," he said. He urged that the FCC ask Congress to decide the issue rather than act on its own.
Reuters and The Wrap contributed