The future of the Internet gets hotly debated Thursday at the Federal Communication Commission.
In what is the agency's most anticipated meeting in recent memory, the commission takes up the issue of network neutrality. Protests against so-called "fast lanes" are planned, as is a rally in favor of strong net neutrality rules.
The focus on net neutrality, also called open Internet, comes after a federal court in January threw out the FCC's existing rules. And the draft of new rules that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler gave to commissioners three weeks ago has divided the body — and caused a furor.
His initial proposal allowed fast lanes to consumers' homes, the so-called "last mile," that content providers such as Netflix can purchase as long as the same opportunities are available to others on "commercially reasonable" terms. After an outcry — and 35,000 public comments on the issue — Wheeler revised the rules to ban certain types of fast lanes and to give the agency the power to review any deals that gave priority to some data.
If the FCC approves new rules, there will be 60 days for public comment and another 57 for replying to the comments before the FCC takes final action.
Q: What is net neutrality?
Also called open Internet, net neutrality is the principle that all legal content on the Internet is treated equally. That is meant to foster creativity and innovation without the fear of Internet service providers throttling some content. As part of its acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011, Comcast agreed to open Internet rules by not favoring NBC content over that of other video providers, such as YouTube.
Q: Why do we need new open Internet rules?
In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned much of the FCC's current body of rules.
Q: How do the new open Internet rules differ from the old ones?
It's not entirely clear, since the drafts have not yet been made public. However, many, including companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, have voiced concern about the possibility that the FCC would let Internet service providers charge tolls for "fast lanes" or discriminate against content. "If these reports are correct, this represents a grave threat to the Internet," says a letter signed by more than 100 companies, including those three, Amazon and Microsoft.
Meanwhile, Internet service providers have voiced their own concerns that the FCC might be too heavy-handed. "As it begins its rule-making process, the Commission should reaffirm its commitment to the light-touch approach that has ensured America's leadership throughout the Internet ecosystem, from networks to services, from applications to devices," reads a letter from more than two dozen broadband companies, including AT&T, Comcast, Cox and Verizon.
Q: What's up with these fast lanes I keep hearing about?
After the court tossed out the FCC's open Internet rules, Netflix announced that it had agreed to pay Comcast to improve the speed and quality of its streaming content to subscribers — in effect, creating a fast lane. Since then, the video provider has signed a similar deal with Verizon.
But Netflix said it signed the deals out of frustration, and company spokesman Joris Evers characterized it as "the wrong path" toward a future where "ISPs get explicit legal permission to do deals with Internet companies."
Other fast-lane critics call the prioritization a form of discrimination that could leave small businesses and entrepreneurs at a disadvantage.
Q: What about this talk that the FCC might start governing the Internet as a public utility?
In its January ruling, the court said the FCC can regulate Internet providers if the agency reclassifies them as "common carriers" — private companies that sell their services to all consumers without discrimination, like utilities, rather than tailoring their rates for different types of consumers.
Back in 2010, when it crafted the open Internet rules, the FCC chose not to invoke this option — calling broadband "telecommunications services" under Title II of The Telecommunications Act — because it wanted to refrain from overly regulating the Internet. Chairman Wheeler has said "I won't hesitate to use Title II," but says that another shot at rule-making would be faster and avoid litigation.
Some net neutrality supporters, including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and its NoSlowLane.com campaign, have latched onto the idea of treating the net "like water." On Wednesday, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., joined that movement, writing to Wheeler that "this approach will allow the FCC to get the policy right and avoid the need to water down essential open Internet protections out of a concern about inadequate authority."
But broadband providers warned in their letter that such a move "would impose great costs, allowing unprecedented government micromanagement of all aspects of the Internet economy."
Q: What about wireless?
The previous batch of open Internet rules did not include wireless services, but the new draft rules include a segment that asks for public comment on whether the FCC should fold wireless in.
It will be easier for all parties once the draft rules are made public, says George Foote, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney with Dorsey & Whitney.
"The whole debate about net neutrality has been hijacked by self-interest and sidetracked by a poor metaphor," he says. "Everyone is free to argue for their favored position. ... But to rage that the rich will get a fast lane and the rest of us will be shunted to the slow lane does not begin to describe the likely outcome of the Wheeler proposals."