FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Addresses Net Neutrality Furor, Assures Internet Will Remain 'Open'

Tom Wheeler
Photo Credit Kristoffer Tripplaar/ Sipa USA/AP Images

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler participates in a panel discussion in this file photo in Washington, D.C. on February 6, 2014.

A few days ago, NPR released a 20-year-old staff memo introducing employees to the Internet. "A code of 'netiquette' exists among users and within user groups," the document reads, "but otherwise, you pay your money, find your niche and take your chances."

Such a utopian outlook seems bittersweet now, when the ability to take those chances based on how much users are willing to pay for them is being hotly debated. Net neutrality has been argued for and against since 2010, when the Federal Communications Commission introduced the Open Internet Order, which prevented ISPs from discriminating against content by allowing a companies to limit the bandwidth available to their customers with pay-for-prioritization deals.

Earlier this year, the issue was revisited when the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in "Verizon vs. FCC" that, while regulation of broadband providers like Verizon and AT&T is laudable, the FCC's attempts to enforce net neutrality exceeded the scope of their authority. The decision re-launched an arms race between companies like Comcast, which worried consumers after its proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable for $45 billion, (a move followed by a streaming deal between Verizon and Netflix) and new protective legislation like the Open Internet Preservation Act and Wheeler's ensuing vow to pursue net neutrality

In what many are viewing as an ideological reversal more in line with the court's order than the Open Internet Order, an FCC insider revealed that the organization was set to propose new rules that would allow content companies to pay for faster delivery over the so-called "last mile" connection to people's homes, but enhance scrutiny of such deals so they don't harm competition or limit free speech.

To address the announcement's rabid fallout, Wheeler took a defensive stance on the FCC's official website on April 29. "Some recent commentary has had a misinformed interpretation of the Open Internet Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) currently before the Commission," he began. "There are two things that are important to understand. First, this is not a final decision by the Commission but rather a formal request for input on a proposal as well as a set of related questions. Second, as the Notice makes clear, all options for protecting and promoting an Open Internet are on the table."

He continues, “The proposed rule is built to ensure that everyone has access to an Internet that is sufficiently robust to enable consumers to access the content, services and applications they demand, as well as an Internet that offers innovators and edge providers the ability to offer new products and services.” Wheeler stressed that while the FCC's powers have been restricted by the Court of Appeals' January ruling, the regulations proposed by the NPRM ensures the organization can still enforce the "transparency rule," which stipulates that ISPs fully disclose their service plans and procedures to the FCC.

However, Wheeler, a former cable and wireless industry lobbyist and Obama fundraiser, stopped short at reclassifying internet service as a telecommunications service under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, which would give the FCC a broader mandate to regulate internet service providers since its authority is greater when dealing with "common carriers" -- and that is a sticking point for many advocates of net neutrality.

"Pretending the FCC has authority won't actually help Internet users when websites are being blocked or services are being slowed down," Free Press CEO Craig Aaron wrote in a statement in February. "If the agency really wants to stop censorship, discrimination and website blocking, it must reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service."

“This is a stake in the heart for Internet openness,” Lauren Weinsten, a tech policy expert and net neutrality proponent, told Time in response to the NPRM proposals. “The nation’s largest Internet service providers have hit the ultimate jackpot. These companies keep secret all of the information needed to evaluate whether violations of Internet openness have occurred, and because the FCC moves so slowly, by the time it acts, a company that’s been victimized could be out of business.”

Ironically, "because the FCC moves so slowly," Wheeler says that's why action of any kind is necessary right now. "This NPRM means that consumers, startup innovators, venture capitalists, and others who have been waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting for the certainty of rules would finally have something on which they can rely," he concluded in his statement.

Wheeler is scheduled to give an address to Congress about these matters on May 20. Until then, may we never forget about "netiquette."