FCC Chair Proposes New Rules to Implement Government-Enforced Net Neutrality

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said on Wednesday that he will embrace calls from President Barack Obama to reclassify Internet service as a utility under Title II of the Telecommunication Act. The move has been criticized by some Republican lawmakers, who call it a “power grab” by the independent agency.

One week after the midterm elections, the president called on federal regulators to protect a free and open Internet by reclassifying the Internet as a utility, arguing that it has become an essential part of people’s daily lives. Utility companies (water, electricity, etc.) provide these services to consumers, but they cannot tell their customers how to use it.

This opens the door for net neutrality rules that would prevent Internet service providers from limiting bandwidth on certain websites and services that challenge the business interests of these companies or from picking winners and losers in the market by setting up paid prioritization services.

In an op-ed in Wired, Wheeler said that he embraces this step and is “proposing that the FCC use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections.”

“Originally, I believed that the FCC could assure internet openness through a determination of “commercial reasonableness” under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996,” Wheeler writes. “While a recent court decision seemed to draw a roadmap for using this approach, I became concerned that this relatively new concept might, down the road, be interpreted to mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers.”

The “commercial reasonableness” Wheeler mentions would have allowed ISPs to create a limited two-tier system with some paid prioritization, a policy change that entered the mainstream when John Oliver blasted it in June on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. What Oliver did not discuss in his show, however, is that previous efforts by the FCC to implement strict net neutrality rules were thrown out in federal court.

Now, however, Wheeler sees an opening to implement net neutrality rules that can survive judicial scrutiny.

“Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC,” Wheeler states. “These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.”

Advocates of the government enforcing net neutrality are praising the decision. However, some Republicans and people who believe it is the market’s job to ensure net neutrality are not happy about Wheeler’s announcement.

“It is a power grab for the federal government by the chairman of a supposedly independent agency who finally succumbed to the bully tactics of political activists and the president himself,” U.S. Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) said in a statement. Thune is chair of the upper chamber’s Commerce Committee.

Thune, along with other critics of government-enforced net neutrality, say such regulations will “make the Internet more rigid and less innovative.”

To be clear, net neutrality is the principle that the Internet should be free and open. That’s it. It is the belief that people should be able to access and share information online without interference from a third party — whether that be the government or corporations.

As previously reported on IVN, a majority of people support net neutrality — Republicans, Democrats, independents, people young and old. Where the division lies is who is ultimately responsible for ensuring the Internet remains free and open.

Some people believe net neutrality should be enforced by the government; the federal government should implement net neutrality rules and then get out of the way. Other people, however, believe the market should protect net neutrality because bureaucracy gets in the way of innovation and it will open the door for additional regulations from the government that go beyond protecting a free and open Internet.

These supporters of net neutrality believe consumers will hold ISPs accountable so that they do not throttle bandwidth speeds or censor content. If consumers don’t approve of an ISP, the company will lose business to competitors.

The FCC is composed of 5 commissioners, 2 Republicans and 3 Democrats. The vote on the new rules is expected to fall along party lines, with both Republicans voting against it and the Democratic majority voting in favor. The FCC is scheduled to vote on the new rules on February 26.

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