Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler is feeling the heat from within the FCC, from internet giants and from venture capitalists to keep net neutrality. They've all weighed in against his proposed rule that would create a fast lane for privileged—and paid-for—content. As a result, Wheeler has come up with a revised proposed rule, but one that's not enough to call real net neutrality.
In the new draft, Mr. Wheeler is sticking to the same basic approach but will include language that would make clear that the FCC will scrutinize the deals to make sure that the broadband providers don't unfairly put nonpaying companies' content at a disadvantage, according to an agency official.That's a bit of progress, but not much. It still allows internet service providers to create a privileged "fast lane" of service for content providers who can afford to pay it. Which is still not net neutrality. The threat of the FCC playing watchdog isn't one that has a whole lot of teeth with these guys. It doesn't answer the concerns of the millions and millions of people and all of the groups and businesses that have expressed to the FCC that net neutrality be preserved.
The official said the draft would also seek comment on whether such agreements, called "paid prioritization," should be banned outright, and look to prohibit the big broadband companies, such as Comcast Corp. and AT&T Inc., from doing deals with some content companies on terms that they aren't offering to others.
Mr. Wheeler's language will also invite comments on whether broadband Internet service should be considered a public utility, which would subject it to greater regulation. The FCC has so far not reclassified broadband as a utility, and providers have fiercely opposed such a move, saying it would cause innovation and investment to collapse.
The bit of encouraging news is that he's opening up the possibility of reclassifying broadband services as a public utility, an option that's clearly legal and makes the most sense for a future in which the FCC has the clear legal authority to regulate broadband providers. Those broadband providers say that they won't be able to innovate any more (because we've seen so much innovation from them so far!) while the entire rest of the information technology industry—and the people who provide the angel funding for new companies—make the point that there won't be investment and innovation in all internet technologies without net neutrality.
There's no question that the good guys have momentum here. The FCC will still vote on Thursday whether to move forward with Wheeler's "fast-lane" proposal.