The fight over net neutrality isn't over yet

FCC's decision is just the first step

WASHINGTON D.C. - Earlier this week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced his long- gestating proposal to update U.S. Internet regulations, espousing a strong net neutrality approach that would ban favorable treatment of web content and regulate the Internet like a utility.

Wheeler’s complete turnaround from considering a tiered-access model with fast and slow lanes to the proposal he outlined in an op-ed in Wired was a bit stunning if not exactly unsurprising.

For the most part, net neutrality advocates and the public who lobbied the FCC with more than 4 million comments got what they wanted: a commitment to keep the Internet free and open and treat all content equally.

Wheeler has given his plan to FCC commissioners and here’s what we know so far. ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner won’t be able to strike deals with content companies to deliver their content faster or abuse competitors by slowing down traffic to their sites or services.

Wheeler’s plan will apply to mobile broadband, in essence treating wireless networks just as wired broadband, a move the FCC had been previously unwilling to commit to. His plan also calls for greater authority to police so called “interconnection” agreements, like the one Netflix struck with Comcast last year.

In almost every aspect, Wheeler’s proposed framework is a slam dunk for long-time net neutrality advocates.

“We won the Internet back,” the Verge’s Nilay Patel wrote after news of Wheeler’s plan broke.

The Center for Democracy and Technology’s President and CEO Nuala O’Connor released a similarly positive statement, saying in part, “This is a historic day for everyone who enjoys the benefits of a fair and open internet.”

And Public Knowledge, an NGO focused on Internet standards that had pushed the FCC hard throughout the drafting process released a statement lauding the plan, calling it “a decision that consumers have been demanding for some time."

Wheeler’s plan is the strongest proposal yet towards robust, codified net neutrality guidelines but that doesn’t mean the fight over control of the Internet will stop any time soon.

Part of the reason Wheeler’s plan took the better part of a year to come together was the commissioner’s need to walk a tightrope between ensuring real Internet freedoms and satisfying ISPs, who have long threatened legal action against the FCC for what they consider unnecessary and increased regulation that would damper future investment and innovation.

And those threats of legal action aren’t likely to go away anytime soon.

Both Verizon and AT&T came out strongly against Wheeler’s proposed framework. Hank Hultquist, an AT&T lawyer, has already fired off two public letters to the FCC, warning that the proposed guidelines won’t stand up in court. And the NCTA, an industry lobbying group, says the proposal will “result in a backward-looking new regulatory regime” that “will only deliver further uncertainty instead of legally enforceable rules.”

Further complicating the eventual implementation of Wheeler’s proposal are Republican efforts to sidestep the FCC and introduce their own net neutrality guidelines in Congress.

Though the GOP has staunchly advocated against net neutrality in the past, in recent weeks House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Michigan, and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune, R-South Dakota, have floated the idea of a compromised approach that they say would satisfy industry concerns while protecting the Internet freedoms held dear by open Internet advocates.

But their draft bill also would seek to limit future regulatory oversight by the commission, a move most Democrats and President Obama, to this point, will not accept.

So where do we go from here?

The FCC is scheduled to vote on Wheeler’s proposal Feb 26 and the measure is expected to pass by a vote of 3-2. But don’t be surprised if we’ll be hearing about net neutrality for much longer after that.

[Related: Surprise, surpise, there's a a partisan divide on net neutrality]

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