FCC Net Neutrality Plan in Chaos

Written by on May 13, 2014 in Government, Internet Control with 0 Comments

Sam Gustin | time.com | May 12 2014

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former top cable and wireless industry lobbyist, appears to have misjudged both public opinion and his fellow Democratic commissioners regarding his “Open Internet” proposal

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is scrambling to change his “Open Internet” proposal after a torrent of criticism from Internet giants, startups, venture capitalists, public interest groups, and consumers.

Net neutrality advocates are mounting a campaign to convince Wheeler to reclassify Internet broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act, which would subject companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to “common carrier” regulation.

For decades, the FCC has regulated traditional phone service under common carrier provisions that require phone companies to connect all calls to people around the country. But in 2002, the FCC made the fateful decision to classify broadband as an “information service” not a “telecommunications service” — paving the way for internet fast lanes and setting the stage for a decade of legal wrangling.

The FCC’s Internet governance policies have been in limbo since a federal court struck down most of the agency’s 2010 Open Internet order in January. That order prohibited broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon from blocking traffic like Skype or Netflix on wired networks or putting them into an Internet “slow lane.”

“Chairman Wheeler has heard the American people and he has changed the item significantly to make Title II a more robust option,” a senior FCC official told TIME on Monday. It’s unclear what that would actually mean, because the draft proposal has not yet been released to the public.

The Internet has become a new public utility, many net neutrality advocates argue, and should be treated as such. The nation’s largest cable and phone companies fiercely oppose that idea — fearing greater regulation — and are mobilizing their lobbyists and allies on Capitol Hill to push back.

The FCC’s eighth floor executive office has been thrown into chaos amid a mounting backlash that shut down its phone lines as a growing number of Open Internet advocates camp out in front of their office.

“Since Wheeler’s proposal was first reported in the media we’ve sent hundreds of calls to the FCC on a daily basis,” says Tim Karr, senior director of strategy at D.C.-based public interest group Free Press, a longtime net neutrality advocacy group. “Last week, we heard from callers that an overwhelmed FCC staff had begun asking people to submit comments by email instead.”

Wheeler, the former top cable and wireless industry lobbyist, is facing a crucial vote on Thursday about whether to advance his plan to allow broadband providers to strike special deals with Internet companies for preferential treatment — sometimes called “paid prioritization” — in the “last mile” to consumers’ homes.

Wheeler says he supports the idea of an Open Internet — and opposes a system in which deep-pocketed tech titans can discriminate against startups — but he failed to anticipate the depth of public opinion on this issue, not to mention skepticism by his fellow Democratic FCC commissioners.

Late last week, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said she has “real concerns” about Wheeler’s plan, and called for the FCC to delay next week’s crucial agency vote on the matter. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has also raised concerns.

Wheeler plans to press ahead with Thursday’s vote, a FCC official told TIME late Monday. The vote wouldn’t enshrine the new rules, it would only approve what’s called a “notice of proposed rulemaking” (NPRM), and make the draft proposal available for public review and comment.

“It’s not even halftime and they’re 20 points down,” a senior tech industry executive told TIME. “But they have a deep bench and there’s plenty of time left.” If Wheeler does not feel he has the three out of five votes needed to approve the NPRM, he has the power to postpone the vote until the FCC’s next meeting. But it appears he’s moving forward.

The crisis facing the FCC is not surprising. For nearly a decade, the FCC has been trying to implement rules that would ensure that the Internet remains open for the next generation of tech startups like YouTube, Skype and Netflix. Open Internet advocacy groups appear to be trying to mobilize a grassroots response like the one they successfully mounted against the 2012 SOPA/PIPA Internet copyright bills.

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