A sharply divided Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to formally move forward its latest contentious proposal on so-called “net neutrality.”
The hotly debated and heavily lobbied proposal, designed to set the rules of the road of Internet traffic for major service providers and users, is open for comments for 120 days, at which time a final rulemaking vote will be held.
Critics fear will the plan, revised after a court struck down the agency’s original plan, could jeopardize open access to the Internet, creating special “fast lanes” for big online companies willing to pay for the privilege. That, they say, violates the open spirit of the Web and could hurt Internet start-ups.
The FCC is also taking flak from others for regulatory overreach. Those critics say any major Internet regulatory moves should come from Congress.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who fashioned the modified proposal that passed on a 3-2 vote, assured the commission that he would work to ensure that the Internet remained equal and open to all.
The chairman denied that his proposal would open the door to a two-tiered Internet, with those with deeper pockets getting better and faster service.
“I strongly support an open Internet. This agency supports an open Internet,” Mr. Wheeler said. “…There is one Internet, not a fast Internet, not a slow Internet, one Internet.”
Hundreds of protesters and spectators camped outside the building before the hearing and inside hecklers were escorted out by security before the meeting began.
“If the network operator slowed the speed below that which the consumer bought, it would be commercially unreasonable, and therefore, prohibited,” Mr. Wheeler said.
But the dissenters on the panel argued that the proposal was put up for a vote too quickly and is still too vague to be effective.
Commissioner Ajit Pai said that the issue should be solved by elected officials in Congress, not the FCC board. Mr. Pai argued that the agency did not have the authority to enforce the proposed rules and was not accurately representing the public interest.
“The FCC has spent too much time speaking at the American people, instead of making recommendations to them,” Mr. Pai said.
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly warned that the proposed rules would lead the agency “down a slippery slope of damaging uncertainty.”
Mr. Pai said that the final decision on the new proposal will determine whether the control of the internet will reside with the government or with the private sector.
Mr. Wheeler insisted that his proposal would not allow for different levels of access for some providers, and claimed the commission was seeking input on enforcement for open Internet rules and FCC transparency. He also said that he understood the importance of net neutrality at a personal level.
“As an entrepreneur I have had products and services shut out of closed cable networks,” he said. “As a [venture capitalist], I invested in companies that wouldn’t have been able to innovate if the network weren’t open.”
“I understand this issue in my bones,” he said. “I’ve got scars from when my companies were denied access in the pre-Internet days.”
Net neutrality backers said the FCC’s proposal still fell short by opening the door to some discrimination by big providers such as Comcast.
“The [FCC] says it wants to hear from the public; it will be hearing a lot more. This fight will stretch into the fall, but there’s one clear answer: The American people demand real net neutrality, and the FCC must restore it,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, an organization advocating for net neutrality.
Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen said in a blog post the company still rejects to a key proposal that would effectively allow the government to oversee Internet providers in the same way telecommunications companies are regulated.
Any proposal to reclassify broadband internet access “would spark massive instability, create investor and marketplace uncertainty, derail planned investments, slow broadband adoption and kill jobs in America,” he wrote.
Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 as a strong backer of net neutrality. The White House said in a statement it was studying the FCC action and would support changes that protect a “free and open” Internet.
Comments are due by July 15 and will then be evaluated by the FCC for a final rule-making.