The chairman of the FCC has denied that proposed rule changes will spell the death of the net neutrality principle. Tom Wheeler says the changes will instead maintain net neutrality but in a way compatible with court rulings.
A federal appeals court recently ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to make rules to stop broadband firms slowing or blocking traffic for reasons other than “reasonable network management.” That’s because the FCC’s doesn’t currently classify broadband as a “common carrier” who must pass all data through without any intervention. Changing that classification could be a tricky political, legal and administrative task.
The FCC is now proposing new rules that, although not allowing intentional slowing, would instead explicitly allow broadband firms to provide faster connections to particular content providers in return for a fee.
The main restrictions would be that any such deals would have to be made public, and that they would have to be made “in a commercially reasonable manner,” though exactly what that means in practice has yet to be confirmed.
The announcement of the proposals (which have not yet been published) understandably prompted criticism that the FCC was ditching the key principle of net neutrality. Wheeler responded to such criticism by stating:
There are reports that the FCC is gutting the Open Internet rule. They are flat out wrong. Tomorrow we will circulate to the Commission a new Open Internet proposal that will restore the concepts of net neutrality consistent with the court’s ruling in January. There is no ‘turnaround in policy.’ The same rules will apply to all Internet content. As with the original Open Internet rules, and consistent with the court’s decision, behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted.
It’s a statement that reeks of trying to change the parameters of an argument. It’s certainly true that as things stand, the FCC would be preventing what are arguably the worst violations of net neutrality such as blocking or slowing traffic for political reasons or as a judgment on the content.
However, allowing some firms to pay for a fast lane is absolutely a breach of the basic concept of net neutrality that says all legal traffic should be treated equally and without discrimination — including cases where that discrimination is against those unwilling and/or unable to pay for special treatment.