We've been lamenting the projected death of net neutrality and a democratic Internet for some time now, and it seems said death is very nearly here. Today, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3 to 2 to advance FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal that would, among other things, permit broadband companies to charge sites for faster streaming service.
Wheeler, a Democrat and former telecomm lobbyist who was appointed as FCC Chairman by President Obama last May, has proposed allowing websites to strike "commercially reasonable" deals with broadband companies to get faster streaming lanes. This means that big sites—Netflix, Hulu, Fox News, what have you—can shell out to prioritize their traffic, while up-and-comers that can't afford to pay get left in the dust.
Considering that the Internet has thrived on being a democratic, open source of information, this proposal poses a huge problem, one that's even warranted flack from the very people who helped pass it through today. "I believe the process that got us to this rulemaking today is flawed. I would have preferred a delay. I think we moved too fast to be fair," FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the three individuals who voted yes on the proposal, told Reuters.
And how did we get here? Well, it all stems from a Court of Appeals ruling in January decreeing that the FCC lacked the authority to require Internet service providers to treat Internet traffic equally. That ruling opened way for the FCC to announce it would regulate the Internet on a "case-by-case basis," and now they're doing some rule re-shaping.
In the weeks leading up to today's vote, critics have attempted to dissuade the FCC from pushing the proposal forward. Silicon Valley, for starters, is very unhappy. “The Chairman’s proposal to permit paid prioritization and discrimination will change the relationship between creators and investors,” Brad Burnham, a venture-capitalist with investment ties toTwitter, Tumblr and Zynga, wrote in a filing, according to the Washington Post. “I can’t imagine that we will risk our investors’ capital in companies that will now be vulnerable to the whims of a gatekeeper that has the technology and incentive to discriminate against our companies’ services.”
Earlier today, about 30 to 50 people gathered outside the FCC's office in Lower Manhattan to protest the proposal. "If we keep up the pressure we can get them [FCC] to back off," Michael Balau who used to work for Verizon and is a member of activist group MoveOn, told us. “We’re hoping to increase awareness” so that “there will be more support of a free Internet, the way it’s supposed to be." Representative Jerry Nadler was also on hand to offer his support, having sent a letter to Wheeler today urging him to drop the proposal. He writes:
What if Verizon decided to block access to YouTube? What if a cable company decided to throttle a competing service that attempted to provide video services over the internet? What if a smaller competitor with a great idea cannot afford to pay an additional fee for access to the internet’s fast lane? Again, innovation would suffer and ultimately consumers would be harmed.
The votes have been cast and the proposal still lives. We have now entered a public comment period: you can submit your thoughts on the survival of net neutrality electronically until July 15th. After that, the FCC will "decide whether to proceed with the rulemaking we proposed, issue a new or modified proposal, or take no action on the proposal."
Additional reporting by Douglas Capraro.