At the Scene of the Federal Communications Commission as the Agency Passes Net Neutrality Rules

Broadband's Impact, FCC, Net Neutrality, The Innovation Economy, Transparency May 16th, 2014

, Reporter, Broadband Breakfast News

Editor’s Note: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is attempting to craft legally unassailable rules promoting net neutrality. But he’s run into trouble from all sides. Communications providers aren’t happy. His fellow commissioners aren’t happy. And the “netroots” activists aren’t happy, either. posts three articles on Thursday’s action at the FCC. First, the scene at 12th Street SW. Second, the reaction from interested parties. Third, what the details of the agency’s order says.

WASHINGTON, May 16, 2014 – In a Federal Commissions Commission meeting tinged with protest, the agency voted Thursday to begin a process to re-established certain network neutrality rules after they had been struck down by a federal appeals court in January.

On a 3-2 vote, the agency’s three Democrats kicked off a proceeding seeking public input on how to find a solution protecting and promote the open flow of information on the internet that will pass legal scrutiny.

Chairman Tom Wheeler retained the support of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn – even though Rosenworcel said she only “concurred” with the proposal.

At the heart of the debate is whether internet service providers should be permitted to discriminate against internet content providers in the speeds whereby consumers may access data. The agency’s proposed rule would re-enshrine a “no blocking” order, and institute a “commercially reasonable” test to evaluate actions by broadband providers.

The agency also re-iterated and enhanced its existing broadband transparency rules, and proposed to implement a range of new dispute resolution procedures. In a last-minute effort to bolster support among net neutrality advocates who felt his proposals too week, Wheeler added language into the text of the proposed order considering whether broadband providers might be regulated as common carriers under the co-called “Title II” of federal communications law.

Before the meeting even began, protesters camped outside the FCC building to express their support for net neutrality.

Audience members erupted in anger during the meeting itself, disrupting the speeches of the Commissioners.

“This is a moment of crisis in our democracy!” exclaimed a representative of a group called Popular Resistance. “The internet is a common carrier…. We don’t want to see the FCC Commission regulate the internet for the people. We want to regulate it for the corporations!” He was escorted out of the room by guards, but not before a wave of applause.

A woman in the audience immediately followed suit.

“Protect the internet! The internet is our free speech, but in this country, our voice is being taken away!”

Wheeler attempted to quell the disquiet. In his remarks, he pledged to support a robust conception of network neutrality.

“If someone acts to divide internet between ‘have and have-nots,’ we will use every power to stop it.” Wheeler said. “I will take no back seat to anyone that privileges some network users…there is one internet. Not a fast internet, not a slow internet. One internet. It must be fast, robust and open.”

The other commissioners agreed the internet had made America the epicenter of innovation and civic engagement, but expressed varying degrees of support for Wheeler’s approach to net neutrality. Rosenworcel lamented Wheeler’s decision to rush headstrong into an issue that she said the agency didn’t firmly grasp.

Commissioner Ajit Pai argued that the FCC had no business interfering with the relationship between ISPs and their customers.

“[This] should be resolved by people’s elected representatives – those who choose the direction of government, and those who the American people can hold directly accountable,” Pai said. “Rather than turning to Congress, we’ve taken matters into our own hands. We’ve been down this road before. Our two prior attempts to go in alone ended in court defeats.”

Pai called for the FCC to solicit a wide range of perspectives from economists and computer scientists, and to put them up for a discussion at a series of hearings.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly blasted net neutrality regulations as a slippery slope. He described network prioritization as a vital practice.

“Voice must be prioritized over emails, video over data. Prioritization is not a bad word. It’s a necessary component of reasonable network management,” he said. “There are companies that do business over the internet, including some of the strongest supporters of net neutrality, who routinely pay for a variety of services to ensure the best possible experience for consumers. They’ve been doing it for years.”

Wheeler retorted that as a former entrepreneur, he understood the need for openness better than anyone.

“I have had products and services shut out of closed cable networks,” Wheeler 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. I’ve got scars from when my companies were denied access in the pre-internet days.”

Nothing in his proposal would allow for paid prioritization, Wheeler insisted.

Before taking the vote, Wheeler closed his remarks with an expression of gratitude to the American people for their passionate involvement in the important issue.

“The founding fathers must be looking down and smiling at how the republic they created, carried out the ideals they established,” he said. “We look forward to further input… in what has been a decade long effort to preserve the open internet.”

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