Compromise is dead in Washington — or so the conventional wisdom goes. But the Federal Communications Commission still thinks it can drive a bargain on net neutrality that pleases everyone at least a little bit.
The fight over net neutrality has largely crystallized into an ideological war. On one side, you have consumer groups who want the FCC to reclassify Internet providers as "common carriers," opening them up to heavier regulations designed to keep them from charging companies like Netflix a fee for accessing consumers. On the other side, you have industry groups who want anything but reclassification; these folks would prefer lighter regulation or none at all.
Trying to split the difference seems like a natural impulse — and it appears that's what the FCC may be preparing to do, according to the Wall Street Journal. The strategy focuses attention on proposals submitted months ago by Mozilla — the maker of the popular Firefox browser — and others. As the Journal puts it:
The plan now under consideration would separate broadband into two distinct services: a retail one, in which consumers would pay broadband providers for Internet access; and a back-end one, in which broadband providers serve as the conduit for websites to distribute content. The FCC would then classify the back-end service as a common carrier, giving the agency the ability to police any deals between content companies and broadband providers.
The FCC has long indicated that it won't hesitate to reclassify Internet service providers (ISPs) under Title II of the Communications Act — and FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart reiterated that Friday.
“The chairman has said that all Title II options are under serious consideration, including proposals by Mozilla, CDT and others,” said Hart.
By definition, compromise means nobody gets all of what they want. And everyone involved in the net neutrality fight is reacting more or less as you'd expect. Mozilla's sensing an opportunity to push harder:
We believe the baseline of what we can expect has gone up, and now, rumored likely outcomes all include some element of Title II, or common carrier, protections sought by advocates against significant opposition.
Meanwhile, other consumer groups fret that the hybrid approach could continue to allow Internet providers to strike paid deals with content companies.
"Policy is not made through leaked articles," said the consumer group Public Knowledge. "Reports of allowing inappropriate paid deals between ISPs and edge providers is worrisome."
The pro-net neutrality group Fight for the Future used slightly more colorful language, calling the hybrid approach a "sham proposal" and "a middle finger to the American public."
Outside analysts were rolling their eyes Friday, too.
"I didn’t think it was possible to find a solution that would both accomplish nothing useful and outrage everyone," said Scott Harris, a telecom lawyer and former FCC official. "Yet they seem to have hit that sweet spot."
Meanwhile, industry officials are doubling down on their opposition to reclassification, warning of a legal challenge should the FCC attempt to selectively apply common carrier regulations to different portions of the Internet.
"I think they'll certainly hear from the broadband industry that, from our perspective, Title II is Title II and we would feel compelled to challenge any sort of Title II in court," said Jonathan Banks, a public policy executive at USTelecom.
While news of the hybrid strategy has already spawned a big response, the specifics of the FCC's plan are still unclear. Based on the lack of details, said one net neutrality proponent, the amount of consternation over the hybrid approach is somewhat exaggerated.
"It's an overreaction with inadequate information," the proponent said, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.