FCC chair tries to salvage net neutrality plan, promises to be strong cop in revised rules


(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Under immense public pressure, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is attempting to salvage a plan that would allow Internet service providers to charge content companies such as Netflix and Google for faster access into U.S. homes, with added assurances the agency will punish telecom firms that abuse their new privileges, according to an official at the agency.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler will present a revised draft of controversial “net neutrality” rules to other commissioners as early as this week that would still permit paid-prioritization of Web content.

The new plan would attempt to explicitly warn Internet service providers such as Verizon and AT&T that they can’t unfairly put the content of Web companies that don’t pay for special treatment on a “slow lane,” according to an FCC officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the rules are still being discussed in private. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the new proposal.

The forthcoming plan lays out policy ideas but also acknowledges there are questions that the agency has yet to resolve. For instance: whether the FCC should ban paid prioritization, or if the agency should consider treating broadband Internet providers as common carrier services with far more regulations.

“The proposal clearly reflects the public interest we’ve received on the item,” the FCC official said.

But because the proposal is short on details showing how the FCC would enforce limits on the behavior of Internet service providers, it’s unlikely to assuage consumer groups, high-tech firms and lawmakers who have slammed Wheeler’s proposal.

The official said the new draft asks the public to comment to comment on whether paid prioritization should be banned, but Wheeler will not drop his proposal to allow the controversial practice. The agency will vote on the plan on Thursday.

The public will be able to comment on the proposal for a total of 60 days with the aim of finalizing rules by the end of the year.

Law professors and consumer groups doubt the FCC can judge if an ISP is unfairly discriminating against Web content firms on the "case-by-case basis" Wheeler has promised. He alarmed high-tech firms including Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Amazon and more than a hundred small Web firms that signed onto a letter last week telling the chairman that by allowing ISPs to charge for better delivery of traffic, he would essentially create a bifurcated Internet with fast lanes for the highest bidders and slow lanes for nonprofits and small startups.

Wheeler has vehemently protested that characterization, saying all consumers will be guaranteed a baseline of broadband Internet quality and that any pay-for-play deals struck between ISPs and Web firms would only be icing on the cake -- a premium experience that doesn't take away from the experience of basic Internet.

But many legal and technology experts say that's impossible.

"With broadband, there is no such thing as accelerating some traffic without degrading other traffic," Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, wrote in a recent New Yorker piece. "We take it for granted that bloggers, start-ups, or nonprofits on an open Internet reach their audiences roughly the same way as everyone else. Now they won’t. "

 

Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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