Interrupted only twice by protestors before a packed room and several overflow rooms, the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to proceed with establishing new net neutrality rules.
The 3-2 vote was a déjà vu moment from 2010 when the commission passed the first rules that landed it in court. Wednesday’s vote was opposed vigorously by GOP commissioners Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly, who argued that the FCC should look to Congress to figure out how best to ensure the open Internet—rather than five unelected officials.
The rulemaking opens a lengthy comment period (through July 15) on a number of proposals for final rules, including enhancing transparency rules for broadband providers, the adoption of a no-blocking rule for legal content and a requirement that broadband providers conform to "reasonable commercial practices." It also proposes to create an ombudsman who would act as a watchdog for consumers and startups. As part of the rulemaking, the FCC asks for comment on whether it should prohibit “paid prioritization” and whether it should reclassify the Internet as a utility.
Trying to regain control over the debate that spun out of control over the past couple of weeks, chairman Tom Wheeler asserted his commitment to use every power at his disposal to ensure an open Internet through the FCC’s process.
“Nothing in this proposal authorizes paid prioritization, despite what has been incorrectly stated,” Wheeler said. “I will not allow the national asset of an open Internet to be compromised.”
Wheeler offered a few hypotheticals in terms of the goals he wants to achieve with the new rules. “If a network operator slowed the speed below what the consumer bought, it would be prohibited. If content is blocked, it would be prohibited. Prioritization that deprives the consumer of what they paid for would be prohibited,” Wheeler said.
The proposal, however, does not cover peering arrangements between Internet transit networks and the ISPs that provide Internet services to consumers. “That is a different matter that is better addressed separately,” Wheeler said.
Even as the Democratic commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voted in favor of the proposal, their votes were only won after Wheeler made revisions to it in the 11th hour by expanding the scope of the proposal to put all options on the table, including the option to classify the Internet like a communications utility.
Still, Rosenworcel was not happy with the process. “I support an open Internet, but I would have done this differently,” she said. “We moved too fast to be fair.”
In Wheeler’s mind, the rulemaking is long overdue. Since the court's decision in January, the FCC has been operating without any net neutrality rules. “This effort has been a decade in the making but blocked by court challenges from those that sell Internet connections to consumers,” he said.
Though the FCC vote kicked off a rulemaking process, the debate will continue to roil beyond the offices of the FCC in the halls of Congress where a number of lawmakers have already vowed to hold hearings. The first will kick off next Tuesday when Wheeler will be the sole witness before the House subcommittee on communications and technology.
It’s a sure bet the protestors and consumer groups are unlikely to let up, ensuring net neutrality will occupy the headlines for months to come.
"The commision says it wants to hear from the public; it will be hearing a lot more," said Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, which has led the consumer fight for reclassifying the Internet. "This fight will stretch into the fall, but there's one clear answer: the American people demand real net neutrality, and the FCC must restore it."