FCC Chairman’s Proposal Allows Companies to Charge Content Providers for Faster Access to Customers

Net Neutrality – the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally as it flows to consumers – took a fatal blow today. So what happened to the grand promise of a free and open Internet in one day? Well, word leaked out that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler plans to allow content providers such as Disney, Google, Amazon, Netflix and others to pay Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon for special, faster lanes to send video and other broadband consuming content to their customers under new rules.

These new rules represent a complete turnaround for the agency on net neutrality. With content providers facing the possibility of having to pay more to deliver their offerings to customers, customers will in turn have to pay more for those services.

Consumer groups have already come out swinging, saying that this change in net neutrality rules would raise prices on popular services and that companies with the money to pay large fees to Internet service providers would be favored over small start-ups with innovative business models.

“If it goes forward, this capitulation will represent Washington at its worst,” said Todd O’Boyle, program director of Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. “Americans were promised, and deserve, an Internet that is free of toll roads, fast lanes and censorship — corporate or governmental.”

Naturally, FCC officials defended the proposal, saying these rules would still protect an open Internet because the FCC would evaluate (on a case-by-case basis) whether particular charges by Internet service providers were fair to consumers and allowed for adequate competition. Service providers would also have to disclose how they treat all Internet traffic and explain the terms they offer more rapid access. They would have to provide that paid access "in a commercially reasonable manner," agency officials said.

"The very essence of a 'commercial reasonableness' standard is discrimination," Michael Weinberg, a vice president at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group, said in a statement. "And the core of net neutrality is nondiscrimination."

"This standard allows Internet service providers to impose a new price of entry for innovation on the Internet," Weinberg added.

Consumers can pay Internet service providers for a higher-speed Internet connection. But whatever speed they choose, under the new rules, they might get some content faster, depending on what the content provider has paid for.

The proposed rules that were drafted by Mr. Wheeler and his staff will be circulated to the agency’s other four commissioners tomorrow and will be released for public comment on May 15. Changes might be made to this proposal based on feedback from the public comment, but the FCC commissioners will ultimately vote on a revised version of the proposal by the end of the year.

No one is shocked that Tom Wheeler has proposed what he considers a "free market solution" that favors telecoms; after all, he is a former lobbyist to the telecom industry. During his confirmation hearing before lawmakers, Wheeler drove home the fact that he believed in an Internet driven by a competitive market, and free from government regulations:

"Competition is a power unto itself that must be encouraged," he said during a June 2013 hearing before lawmakers. "Competitive markets produce better outcomes than regulated or uncompetitive markets."

We'll have more on this story as it develops.

Source: New York Times by way of Andrew Eisen.

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