The Federal Communications Commission defended proposed rules Thursday governing Internet traffic that critics said would gut the concept of Net neutrality. The rules would allow special deals to be reached between broadband carriers and Internet-based content providers that would allow their content to receive priority on the Internet.
After a federal court struck down the existing laws in January, Internet service providers (ISPs) have been left to do almost anything without a significant amount of oversight.
'No Turnaround in Policy'
The proposal represents "no turnaround in policy," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in a statement. He said the proposal would "restore the concepts of net neutrality consistent with the court's ruling in January."
Wheeler said the FCC proposal ensures that broadband carriers cannot block legal Internet traffic, and they "may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity."
The FCC's Open Internet Order of 2010 regulated the industry so that all Internet traffic would be treated in the same way. While there were some flaws in the order, it was generally viewed as an acceptable way to regulate the industry since it protected the fundamental idea of Net neutrality. After the Open Internet Order was struck down in January, advocates hoped the FCC would implement new rules similar to it.
While it may not be the same as the Open Internet Order, the FCC's proposal does not do away with Net neutrality, Wheeler said. "As with the original Open Internet rules, and consistent with the court's decision, behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted," he said.
Help or Hurt?
Net neutrality advocates overwhelmingly agree that for the Internet to be run in the most effective way, broadband must be treated as a telecommunications service. Doing this would prevent ISPs from treating traffic from Netflix or YouTube any differently than traffic from Facebook. Since that sort of reclassification would simply be too difficult to implement, the FCC is already forced to make compromises.
The main question now is whether the FCC's proposal, which is scheduled to be heard May 15, is better than the current situation. Jeff Kagan, an independent technology analyst, told us that though the rules are unique, they do seem fair.
"So far, from what I hear, I think the Net neutrality rules seem fair. Different, but fair," Kagan said. "Companies like Netflix and Comcast, who have been riding on this very expensive information superhighway for free, will now have a choice. They can either not pay a fee and will not be in the fast lane, or they can pay a fee and will be in the fast lane."