Advocates on all sides of the net neutrality debate are gearing up for an intense battle for Internet freedom after the agency approved a controversial plan. After a 3-2 vote Thursday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency would move forward with a set of rules that could make pay-for-faster Internet deals between websites or mobile applications and broadband companies more common. The public has until July 15 to comment on the rules, and activists are ready to make that window count.
The party-line decision led by Democrats came after weeks of demonstrations and debate on how the FCC should best protect the Internet and ensure open and free-flowing access. The two Republican commissioners who voted against the proposal would go further, eliminating any and all net neutrality rules on the grounds that they’re unnecessary. Last week, a group of nearly 200 tech companies and investors appealed to the FCC, urging that it not go forward with its fast-track plan. An online campaign led by MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, spread across some corners of the Web where supporters posted a “Save the Internet” picture on their social media profiles. Verizon, AT&T and other broadband providers also petitioned the FCC this week, insisting Wheeler back off a proposal that could translate into stricter regulations for the companies. Protesters camped outside of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) headquarters in Washington, D.C. ahead of the decision.
Net neutrality defenders and opponents ultimately walked away from Thursday’s meeting with mixed feelings. “The Internet is a place of dialogue and interdependence, and [the FCC’s proposal] threatens that,” said Yoni Galiano, a 28-year-old massage therapist from Long Island, N.Y. who camped out in front of the FCC building for a week leading up to Thursday’s vote.
People can get their message out at little to no cost on the Internet, and the FCC’s pay-to-play model jeopardizes that, Rain Burroughs, an activist from Richmond, Va., who camped out and protested in front of the agency for three days before the hearing, told ThinkProgress. “We need the people to be aware of what’s at stake, it’s a First Amendment issue…This is how people communicate, especially activists,” she said.
The activists worry that the new rules may impede customer Web access by allowing Internet providers such as Comcast to control what kinds of content customers can get, and at what speed, through charging hefty fees to websites or mobile applications such as Netflix. As a result, even companies that do pay for priority access could pass those extra costs to consumers.
Thursday’s plan differs slightly from an earlier version released last month. Fast track plans would be permitted as long as broadband providers didn’t slow down customers’ connections they pay for every month. The FCC said it would also make sure any deals with Internet providers that promised fast-track access would be heavily scrutinized before they could be approved. Wheeler’s new plan, which was penned earlier this week, also offers an alternative in which the Internet would be treated as a common carrier or utility, similarly to electricity and water.
Broadband companies took major issue with the FCC’s plan, saying the common utility proposal that would subject them to crippling regulations. “For the FCC to impose 1930s utility regulation on the Internet would lead to years of legal and regulatory uncertainty and would jeopardize investment and innovation in broadband,” Verizon said in a statement. Comcast echoed the same sentiment, saying treating the Internet as a utility “would spark massive instability” and “kill jobs in America.”
The two Republican commissioners on the FCC board who voted against the plan also say the rules are unnecessary and should be scrapped altogether. “Prioritization is not a bad word,” Commissioner Michael O’Rielly told the Wall Street Journal. “It is a necessary component of reasonable network management.”