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Grassroots Outcry Pushes FCC Chair to Backpedal on Internet Rules

Advocates say new draft does not go far enough, call for Internet to be reclassified as public utility

Lauren McCauley

Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler is backpedaling on his proposed rules that would threaten the democracy of the Internet, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday evening.

The updated draft follows widespread outcry against Wheeler's proposal, unveiled last month, which would allow Internet service providers to charge an extra fee to content companies for preferential treatment in the form of "fast lanes," effectively marginalizing the content of users who do not pay. Critics charged that this "pay-to-play" model would threaten the democratic nature of the open Internet, destroying net neutrality.

However, supporters of an open Internet say that the changes fall short and are a "non-fix," according to TechCrunch, because they preserve the option of pay-for-speed.

According to the WSJ,

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.

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.

The one significant change reported by the WSJ, according to advocates, is that Wheeler is now seeking comment on whether broadband Internet service should be reclassified as a public utility—instead of its current classification as an information service—which would allow for it to be subject to greater regulation. In the past, Internet service providers, or ISPs, have fiercely opposed such a move.

The new rules are set to be voted on as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) during a May 15th FCC meeting. The NPRM both serves as a proposal to issue new regulations and an invitation for the public to comment on it.

Ahead of the vote, protesters are camping outside of the FCC building, and thousands of activists are set to partake in a rally and day of action on Thursday.

“Chairman Wheeler is starting to feel the grassroots pressure against his pay-for-prioritization proposal. But none of his recent statements go far enough to give Internet users the Net Neutrality protections that they demand,” Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, said in a statement to Common Dreams.

Aaron, however, welcomed the proposal to reclassify the Internet, adding that Wheeler must "abandon the flimsy and failed legal approach of his predecessors and reclassify Internet service providers as the common carriers they are. If preventing fast and slow lanes on the Internet is the goal, reclassification is the way forward."

Barbara van Schewick and Morgan Weiland with Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society note that, assuming the rules still allow paid prioritization as WSJ reports, "the substance of the Chairman’s proposal hasn’t changed."

"So instead of an Internet with a slow lane and a fast lane, the new proposal might result in an Internet that offers a 'not-so-fast, but not totally crappy lane' to applications that don’t pay and a 'faster lane' to those that do," they write.

Van Schewick and Weiland continue:

If we want to protect the Internet as a platform for free speech, application innovation, and economic growth, we need to ban pay-to-play access fees and adopt a bright-line non-discrimination rule that bans discrimination against applications or classes of applications. Users, entrepreneurs, investors, and public interest groups have already moved the debate in the right direction, getting reclassification off the table and into the NPRM.

If we want an open Internet and the rules necessary to preserve it, we have to continue to make our voices heard and work hard to educate and convince the FCC, the White House, and members of Congress.

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