In testimony Tuesday before a House oversight committee, Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler insisted that his proposal for a fast lane on the internet was not what it appears to be—paid prioritization that creates two internets, because the FCC could step in an prevent that.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency recognizes that Internet providers would be disrupting a "virtuous cycle" between the demand for free-flowing information on one hand and new investment in network upgrades on the other if they started charging companies like Google for better access to consumers. What's more, he said, the FCC would have the legal authority to intervene.If a broadband company creates a fast lane for some content providers that worsens service for some internet uses, Wheeler says, that would be "commercially unreasonable" and the FCC would act. That's the case-by-case approach Wheeler wants for regulating against paid prioritization—content providers paying to have their stuff made a priority. He insists that his proposal that would allow broadband companies to charge more for better, faster content delivery is all about keeping net neutrality.
"If there is something that interferes with that virtuous cycle—which I believe paid prioritization does—then we can move against it," Wheeler said, speaking loudly and slowly.
Wheeler is counting on two things happening under this proposed rule that seem unduly optimistic: that the telecoms won't try to abuse this power, and that this and future FCCs will act swiftly and effectively in the event that they do it anyway. That's putting a lot of faith in companies that have shown outright hostility to regulation. It's also assuming that an FCC appointed by a future Republican—as hostile to regulation as the telecoms—will work to prevent abuse.
There's a clear path forward for Wheeler to prevent what he says he wants to prevent—a two-tiered Internet. That's by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service—a public utility—instead of as an information service as it currently is, a classification that has created all sorts of legal wrangling challenging the FCC's authority. The FCC can simply reclassify broadband companies, and enforce net neutrality without jumping through the hoops he proposes with this rule.