FCC vote advances rules on net neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission today voted in favor of proposed rules that would weaken Internet neutrality and could make it difficult for Internet startups to gain traction. Under the proposed rules, content companies can pay Internet service providers for special access to consumers, although service providers could not block or discriminate against specific websites that don't pay.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has said the proposed rules would prohibit “behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet….” But the mechanism (described as a “multifaceted dispute resolution process”) by which the FCC would police this prohibition is not clear.

The vote comes at a time when the concept of “net neutrality” is becoming hard to define, as content providers like Netflix can avoid the need for a fast toll lane on the public information superhighway by building private data roads to ISPs like Comcast. Mozilla has proposed its own solution for how to deal with connections between content providers, ISPs, and consumers, as outlined here.

Today's three-to-two vote was along party lines, with the two Democratic commissioners joining Wheeler in support of the rules. However, Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel expressed concerns about the rules. She had favored a delay in the vote.

The vote triggers four months of public comment, after which the commissioners will vote again on potentially redrafted rules that take into account public comment.

The Washington Post quoted Harold Feld, a vice president at Public Knowledge, a media and technology policy public interest group, as saying, “Agencies almost always change their rules from the initial proposal—that is why we have a whole notice and comment period, so that the agency can hear from the public and be educated into making the right decision (or at least the least bad decision). Do not freak about the tentative conclusion and proposed rules.”

Update: Brian Fung in the Washington Post highlighted this quote from Wheeler: “If a network operator slowed the speed of service below that which the consumer bought, it would be commercially unreasonable and therefore prohibited. If the network operator blocked access to lawful content, it would violate our no-blocking rule and therefore be doubly prohibited.”

I as a consumer “bought” (I believe) “up to 25 Mb/s.” That means from 0 to 25 Mb/s. Apparently Wheeler would not prohibit my ISP slowing my connection speed down to zero.

Now if the FCC would require ISPs to offer a minimum (not maximum) level of service, then the claim might have some merit.

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