FCC Votes to Preserve Open, Neutral Internet

Following a protracted debate that drew millions of public comments, a White House endorsement and some GOP opposition, the Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday (Feb. 26) to enforce proposed rules that protect the agnostic treatment of data over the high-speed Internet. The five-member board sided with chairman Tom Wheeler's plan to regulate ISPs under many privisions of Title II of the Communications Act, a designation that compels providers to treat all data equally, effectively ending the possibility for Internet fast and/or slow lanes.

As FCC lawyer Melissa Kirkel explained, the new rules are essentially that: "Broadband providers may not block access to legal content, application services or non-harmful devices. Providers may not impair or degrade service based on content" and, finally, that "they may not favor some Internet traffic over other Internet traffic."

The 3-2 vote came down party lines, with the two Republican members opposing. In addition to FCC lawyers, the four FCC commissioners and chairman Wheeler, the room also heard from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, Veena Sud, developer of The Killing, and Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson before voting on the proposed rules.

"It's not what the American people want," said Commissioner Ajit Pai, notably ignoring four million comments, almost all in favor of open Internet rules, filed to the FCC.

Commissioner Michael O'Reilly voiced concern over the new rules' effect on small service providers, and that many in America may go without broadband access -- a situation that the Commission's earlier decision on municipal broadband (more on that below) was designed to combat.

"Today's FCC action is about consumer rights, free specch, democracy... and a platform for business," Berners-Lee told the panel via, appropriately, a streamed video presentation.

The reclassification of high-speed access was supported by President Obama in November, a move that many think pushed Wheeler strongly in the direction of Title II reclassification.

"The action we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control open and free access to the Internet," said Wheeler in his closing remarks. "The Internet is simply too important to let broadband providers be the ones making the rules."

The debate over net neutrality generated more than 4 million public comments during the FCC's "Open Internet" proceedings, which followed a court decision involving Verizon that resulted in the removal of much of the commission's regulatory authority over broadband ISPs. The majority of the comments were in favor of preserving net neutrality.

Verizon responded to the ruling via Michael E. Glover, its vp of public policy and government affairs: "The FCC today chose to change the way the commercial Internet has operated since its creation. Changing a platform that has been so successful should be done, if at all, only after careful policy analysis, full transparency, and by the legislature, which is constitutionally charged with determining policy. As a result, it is likely that history will judge today's actions as misguided."

Today's historic hearing began by addressing a different, nearly equally important, topic: whether or not to overrule laws preventing local broadband networks' expansions -- a move that would increase competition and service for many communities that have been underserved by the larger broadband providers.

"You can't say that you're for broadband, then turn around and enforce limits on who can offer it," said chairman Tom Wheeler. "You can't say you're for competition, but deny local elected officials the right to offer competitive choices."

"This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech," said Wheeler in his closing remarks.