WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Federal Communications Commission moved ahead Thursday with a proposal that could fundamentally change the most basic ways we connect online. After weeks of meeting with activists and addressing concerns from tech giants such as Google and Facebook, chairman Tom Wheeler introduced a set of guidelines that would leave the door open to the establishment of Internet "fast lanes.”
The guidelines released will now be open to a public review period over the next four months, with the hope that a final set of regulations can be finalized by the end of the year. While the proposal includes provisions for ensuring consumers can’t be blocked from online material they want to access, it also allows for the possibility that some providers could charge for faster access. Critics say that is a direct threat to net neutrality.
The debate over net neutrality is often couched in terms of content creator vs. infrastructure provider, that is Google and Amazon vs. Verizon and Comcast.
But at its core, the decision over how to regulate the Internet has deep civic consequences. In a world where so much communication, commerce and information moves online, what would it mean if access to fast lanes could be bought and sold?
The reason proponents of net neutrality fear restrictions on the Internet isn’t just because they don’t want large conglomerates slowing down content; they don’t want to hand them the ability to slow down ideas. They don’t want anyone to pick and choose what gets to go on the fast lane.
The problem is that the Internet has become crucial to how people live – how they talk to relatives, pay bills, buy clothes – and it will only become more so. In that sense, the Internet itself is like a basic utility – the electric company, the water agency, the post office and the old phone companies. Shouldn’t utilities be regulated so that people have equal access, service and rights?
Until January, the FCC was essentially enforcing net neutrality - ISPs weren’t allowed to pick and choose among content providers. But the DC Circuit said the legal rationale the FCC was using was improper. Thursday’s actions by the FCC were the first step in a new approach.
In remarks made Thursday, Wheeler pushed back against criticism that his plan would change the open nature of the web. “The prospect of a gatekeeper who chooses winners and losers on the Internet is unacceptable," he said. "I will not allow the national asset of an open Internet to be compromised.”
Wheeler hopes the new approach can avoid death by litigation. We should know by December.