The Internet's days as a wide-open, virtually lawless hash-up of networks may be just about over. As expected, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has outlined what he called the "strongest open Internet protections ever proposed."
The plan, outlined in a Wired magazine op-ed, would bring broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act, treating it for the first time as a public utility and enshrining the "network neutrality" principles long demanded by consumer advocates.
Wheeler's plan would outlaw "fast lanes" -- the practice of charging content providers like Netflix more money for reliable Internet access. It would also prohibit carriers from blocking or throttling lawful content and would apply to both wireless and landline networks.
The full FCC will vote on the plan later this month.
Wheeler had been thought to favor less stringent regulations but President Obama came out in support of Title II reclassification in November. As a Presidential appointee, Wheeler would be expected to abide by the boss' wishes.
Republicans on Capitol Hill, buoyed by the frantic efforts of telecom industry lobbyists, are threatening to strip the FCC of its authority under Title II but Democrats, cheered on by the equally frantic computer industry lobbyists, aren't likely to go along and, in any event, Obama would be almost certain to veto any such effort.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Science, Space, and Technology said Wheeler's plan would provide "fair, equal access to the internet" to everyone.
"No Internet Service Provider (ISP) should be allowed to block or degrade access to certain sites, nor serve as ‘gatekeepers or toll-booths’ of the Internet," Beyer said. "Companies like Google and Facebook, once small insurgent startups, might never have been able to grow had it not been for fair and equal access to the Internet for everyone, not just big businesses that will pay to gain better access."
In his op-ed, Wheeler acknowledged carriers' claims that they must throttle some traffic to keep things moving smoothly but said that consumers' interests must also be taken into account.
"Broadband network operators have an understandable motivation to manage their network to maximize their business interests. But their actions may not always be optimal for network users," he said.
Wheeler insisted his proposal is not over-reaching but instead is "rooted in long-standing regulatory principles, marketplace experience, and public input received over the last several months," noting that the FCC had received more than 4 million public comments, the majority of them supporting net neutrality.
The Consumer Federation of America said ISPs have no one but themselves to blame for the prospect of tougher regulation.
"The less the FCC has to use its power, the better, but the behavior of the network operators over the decade since broadband was classified as an information service has made it clear the FCC must have the authority to prevent abusive discriminatory and anticompetitive practices and promote universal service," the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization said in a prepared statement.
"It is our hope that the edge companies and the network operators recognize that the FCC has the authority to promote the most important goals of the Act and embrace this decision as an opportunity to work out their differences to the greatest extent possible in private negotiations that lead to commercially reasonable outcomes."
Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, a non-profit long supportive of net neutrality, said ISPs "are guilty of spreading tons of misinformation about Title II, and they’ll spew more lies as the vote approaches."
“Neither Congress nor the FCC should delay this issue any further. The FCC should move forward now with the real Net Neutrality protections we need," Aaron.