The FCC’s net neutrality Twitter chat was actually useful


Gigi Sohn (John Taylor)

Twitter chats are rarely productive; the host's messages often get lost amid the flood of questions and comments from other users, and there's definitely an incentive for others to hijack the hashtag.

But the Federal Communications Commission tried it on Tuesday anyway after being flooded with criticism of a proposal that would give Internet providers more flexibility to charge for reliable service. And it wasn't terrible.

During the Twitter livechat, Gigi Sohn, a top advisor to Chairman Tom Wheeler, repeated a message we've heard before: The agency has not ruled out regulating broadband providers more heavily, like a phone company. Critics say the proposal would let broadband providers like Verizon and Comcast charge other Web companies for smoother delivery.

The FCC hasn't publicly released the proposal, but will on Thursday.

But Sohn also offered a taste of what's to come by dropping a few hints about what's in the proposed rules. Among them:

This is potentially very important. The FCC is explicitly asking in its new draft whether it should ban the fast lanes that many critics are worried about. It's less clear whether the commission would act on the feedback. Nor is it obvious how the FCC would legally justify such a move, as that was one of the things that got the agency's old rules on net neutrality struck down by a federal court in the first place. Still, it's significant that Wheeler is soliciting feedback on how it could accomplish that goal.

 By now, the entire five-member panel has seen the draft rules, according to Sohn. That contradicts a statement from the office of FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai this morning:

When it comes to the Chairman's latest net neutrality proposal, the Democratic Commissioners are in the fast lane and the Republican Commissioners apparently are being throttled. The Chairman's Office should end this discrimination and stop blocking the Republican Commissioners from seeing the Chairman's latest plan.

Sohn didn't say whether the plan that had been circulated to other commissioners was the initial one from several weeks ago or the second draft that was announced earlier this week.

 The new draft rules are open to breaking down the wall that's traditionally separated the landline Internet business from the wireless broadband business, which includes companies like Sprint and T-Mobile. That's important because the old net neutrality rules, the ones struck down by a federal court this year, didn't apply to purveyors of mobile data. If the FCC's new proposal asks people whether a wireline provider like Comcast or a wireless provider like AT&T should have to comply with the same rules, that could be a major step.

The FCC is extending the public comment period to 60 days so that more people can weigh in on the issue. That will be followed by another 60 days for replies. While it puts a bit of pressure on the FCC to reach a decision before Dec. 31, that's four months of deliberation.

 

The new draft rules specifically ask the public to weigh in on a proposal by Mozilla that would have the FCC regulate broadband companies more stringently — using Title II of the Communications Act — but only in a limited fashion. The basic idea is that download traffic could be regulated this way, but uploads would be regulated more lightly. The legal scholar Tim Wu, who coined the term "net neutrality," has also proposed a similar idea.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung | May 13