FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler at the FCC meeting in Washington on Thursday.
WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday opened the door to a wide range of possibilities for the future of the Internet.
Commissioners voted 3-2, along expected party lines, to begin the public comment period for the FCC’s proposed rules. Within minutes, lobbyists on both sides of the net neutrality debate issued statements decrying different parts of the proposal.
It was the first day of a nearly four-month comment period that has already stirred strong feelings from major Internet companies, broadband providers, politicians and activist organizations. Public interest has ticked up as well.
The FCC has laid out two options: FCC regulation of deals between content providers and broadband companies, or subjecting broadband to the more intensive regulations of a public utility.
The first option is a compromise following a January court decision that struck down stronger net neutrality rules. The FCC would have to let companies cut deals in which the broadband companies could charge more for faster speeds. For net neutrality advocates, it would open the door to a tiered Internet of fast and slow lanes as well as a system that could double-charge customers.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler struck a forceful tone in an attempt to reassure criticsFCC Chairman Tom Wheeler struck a forceful tone in an attempt to reassure critics that the FCC could monitor these deals and force them to adhere to the principles of an open Internet.
“We start with a simple, obvious premise. Protecting the open Internet is important for both consumers and economic growth. We are dedicated to protecting and preserving an open Internet,” Wheeler said.
Many net neutrality advocates find the idea of allowing deals but regulating them unacceptable. MoveOn.org wrote in a statement that the new rules "could destroy the Internet as we know it."
In reality, the comment period that officially opened Thursday has been open since media outlets first reported that Wheeler had circulated his first draft of new Internet regulations. The uproar came nearly immediately. Wheeler responded.
His second draft included the possibility of going in entirely the other direction — reclassifying broadband as a utility and making it eligible for stricter regulation. Net neutrality advocates consider this the best, and really only, way for the Internet to remain completely open.
Internet companies that had reacted with relative positivity to the initial rules moved swiftly to unite against reclassification, warning that it would needlessly restrict operations and investment.
During the hearing, Wheeler held reclassification like a trump card. It is the “use in case these rules do not work” card, and one that he wants to make sure broadband companies know he is willing to play.
Wheeler put it to the public: What is the best way to ensure an open Internet?
Do we trust that the FCC is capable of taking action when companies stifle the open Internet?Do we trust that the FCC is capable of taking action when companies stifle the open Internet?
This suddenly makes the FCC an even more important player in the future of the Internet. It is worth noting that the way the FCC rules on these issues can change. Commissioners serve five-year terms and are appointed by the president.
The vote on Thursday was no landslide. The two Republican commissioners spoke against enhanced regulation. The proposal got through because President Barack Obama won the last election and was able to nominate three Democrats (no party may have more than three seats). If a Republican president comes to power, the FCC could suddenly swing toward less regulation and more freedom for broadband providers.
A new president will eventually mean new commissioners who could feel that "commercial reasonableness" means something different.
Reclassification has its own political risks and impermanence. Broadband companies could seek an injunction against a reclassification ruling, blocking the regulation from being put in place.
Whether or not reclassification makes it through legal challenges, a future FCC could again change the way broadband companies are labeled. Wheeler knows this, and it may be why he'd rather find a deal that appeases broadband companies, who lobby hard when they want changes.
"It all shows the usefulness of a careful, light-handed approach like I think Wheeler has proposed," said George Foote, a lawyer for Dorsey & Whitney who specializes in telecommunications law.
There's little question among net neutrality advocates that reclassification is the best move, but for Wheeler, efforts to compromise with broadband companies could result in a long-term solution — if the FCC can be trusted.
Let the commenting begin.