Yesterday, we witnessed a major step forward in the campaign for Net neutrality. In an op-ed piece for Wired magazine, Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler officially announced, “After more than a decade of debate and a record-setting proceeding that attracted nearly 4 million public comments, the time to settle the Net Neutrality question has arrived. This week, I will circulate to the members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed new rules to preserve the internet as an open platform for innovation and free expression. This proposal is rooted in long-standing regulatory principles, marketplace experience, and public input received over the last several months.”
As many media reform groups and other concerned citizens had hoped, Wheeler’s proposal uses Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 to reclassify broadband service as a public utility, like the phone companies:
“Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC . . . My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.
“All of this can be accomplished while encouraging investment in broadband networks. To preserve incentives for broadband operators to invest in their networks, my proposal will modernize Title II, tailoring it for the 21st century, in order to provide returns necessary to construct competitive networks. For example, there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling. Over the last 21 years, the wireless industry has invested almost $300 billion under similar rules, proving that modernized Title II regulation can encourage investment and competition.”
Among other precedents, Wheeler writes that the new proposal will also cover mobile broadband, and ensure internet for the disabled and those living in remote parts of the country. “The internet must be fast, fair and open,” he concludes. “That is the message I’ve heard from consumers and innovators across this nation. That is the principle that has enabled the internet to become an unprecedented platform for innovation and human expression.”
Reactions to the chairman’s remarks came quickly. “Wheeler has now chosen a legal strategy that he saw as too radical nine months ago,” Timothy Lee at Vox wrote. At The Guardian, Dominic Rushe described Wheeler’s announcement as “a titanic . . . shift on net neutrality after a years-long push from internet activists.” And Brooks Boliek and Alex Byers at Politico report, “The announcement marks the biggest change in Internet policy in more than a decade and signals a new phase for the FCC as it tries to ensure that Internet providers treat all Web traffic equally.”
The Congressional Progressive Caucus:
“Today’s victory belongs to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who wrote letters, organized protests, tweeted and demanded the FCC protect a free and open Internet. Reclassification is the only way to stop providers from increasing prices and restricting the Internet for those who can’t afford to pay for fast lanes. We applaud Chairman Wheeler’s proposal to continue the Internet’s role as an engine for democracy and free expression, and we hope the full commission approves it. Too often in Washington, D.C., only the biggest corporations get what they want. Today’s move to reclassify the Internet is proof that when we organize together we can win.”
Miles Rapoport, president, Common Cause:
“The Internet is the Town Hall of the 21st century; if we want our democracy to flourish, we must see that it remains open to everyone. That’s why today’s signal that the FCC will reclassify Internet service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act is so important . . . But let’s not kid ourselves; there’s plenty more to do.”
Former Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now special advisor to Common Cause:
“This is a banner day as years of grassroots organizing are paying historic public interest dividends . . . Congratulations to Chairman Wheeler and his supportive colleagues for hearing what millions have said: only the strongest Open Internet rules will protect competition and free expression online.”
Matt Wood, policy director, Free Press:
“Chairman Wheeler’s announcement today is the culmination of a decade of dedicated grassroots organizing and advocacy. We’re now one step closer to restoring real public interest protections to our nation’s communications policies. If the full FCC adopts the chairman’s proposal, and it’s free of any last-minute surprises, then everyone’s right to communicate freely online will be secured. We commend Chairman Wheeler’s actions and his willingness to listen to the facts in the face of a fiercely dishonest industry lobbying effort.”
Rashad Robinson, executive director, ColorOfChange:
“By protecting the open Internet, the FCC will protect the platform that is fueling a new civil rights movement. Net neutrality provides a level playing field for all voices, and it has allowed Black activists, entrepreneurs, and citizens to find their audience online, despite often being left out of traditional media . . . From the streets of Ferguson to the halls of Congress, our ability to be heard, counted, and visible in this democracy depends on an open Internet, because it allows voices and ideas to spread based on their quality—not the amount of money behind them.”
Not everyone was as pleased.
Former Republican FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth:
“It will discourage investment in networks. It will discourage the development of a faster, more consumer-friendly Internet. It will lead to at least two years of intense litigation during which a great deal of uncertainty will cover the Internet.”
Doug Brake, telecommunications policy analyst, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation:
“Title II common carrier regulations represent a strong shift towards a European-style, precautionary regulation, over-regulating up-front without legitimate justification . . . As ITIF has repeatedly stated, the decision to classify broadband as a telecommunication service in order to apply common carrier regulations is an unjustified, overblown response to what has in actuality been a by-and-large hypothetical concern.”
Rick Boucher, former Democratic chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee; honorary chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance:
“I urge Chairman Wheeler to reconsider his plan to treat broadband services under common carrier rules,” said. “Subjecting broadband to public utility regulation under Title II is unnecessary for assuring continued Internet openness and would carry deeply harmful consequences.”
Officially, Tom Wheeler presents his proposed rules to the full commission today. A 3-2 vote, along party lines, is expected to pass the rules on February 26. There will follow a cacophony of court and congressional action. AT&T already has signaled that it will file suit; other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) doubtless will follow.
(You can continue to file your own comments on the Net neutrality debate at the FCC website. And the website BattlefortheNet.com will show you how to call the FCC and members of Congress.)
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.