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FCC chairman proposes strong net neutrality rules

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wrote Wednesday that he is proposing to reclassify cable Internet companies as "common carriers," subject to increased government regulation. Chairman Wheeler's proposal would disallow providers from blocking or slowing the delivery of legal content.

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    FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed to reclassify Internet providers as "common carriers." Here, Chairman Wheeler gestures at a news conference in Washington.
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Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler confirmed in an opinion piece on Wired.com that he is submitting a proposal to the other four FCC commissioners to reclassify cable Internet providers, such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable, as “common carriers” subject to stronger government oversight.

This is something of an about-face for Mr. Wheeler. Last year, he proposed much lighter regulations that would have allowed cable companies to make decisions about what content to carry over their networks – as long as those decisions were “commercially reasonable.”

Wheeler wrote in his piece Wednesday, “I became concerned that this relatively new concept might, down the road, be interpreted to mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers.”

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Under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, "common carriers" cannot block or degrade the delivery of certain kinds of legal content. These rules, applied to the Internet, would prevent a broadband provider from discriminating against one content company – say, Netflix – in favor of another, such as that broadband provider’s own competing streaming-video service.

It’s worth noting that companies still can, and do, negotiate deals to interconnect with each others’ networks for faster content delivery. Last year, Netflix paid Comcast and Verizon to deliver traffic straight from its servers to their networks, easing traffic congestion by bypassing the Internet backbone. Such “paid peering” deals are separate from "net neutrality," which has to do with how Internet providers handle data once it’s on their networks.

Wheeler’s proposal is the culmination of a decade-long consideration of net neutrality principles. The FCC’s main net neutrality proceeding attracted a record four million public comments, mostly in support of reclassifying cable companies as Title II common carriers. If the proposal is approved by the FCC, it will reverse the Commission’s 2002 decision to classify cable Internet as an “information service,” and will instead classify it as a “telecommunications service.”

Wheeler wrote that his proposal contains “enforceable, bright-line rules [that] will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services.” The FCC tried to enforce those no-blocking and no-throttling rules in its 2010 Open Internet Order, but the D.C. Circuit court ruled last year that as long as cable Internet was considered an information service, the FCC couldn’t regulate providers to that degree.

Should the proposal pass, it’s all but certain that Internet providers will take the issue to court to argue that the FCC’s regulation chokes out innovation and investment in network upgrades. But Wheeler says Title II reclassification is necessary to keep the Internet a level playing field for everyone.

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