FCC net neutrality vote: Why there’s a flurry of eleventh-hour lobbying

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on Thursday morning to reclassify broadband Internet providers as "common carriers." That would give the FCC the authority to enforce "net neutrality" principles by requiring those providers to treat Internet traffic equally.

Jose Luis Magana/AP/File
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks during a news conference in Washington on October 8, 2014. The FCC will vote on Chairman Wheeler's net neutrality proposal on Thursday morning.

It’s all but certain that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on Thursday morning to approve Chairman Tom Wheeler’s plan for "net neutrality," which involves reclassifying providers of wired and wireless broadband Internet access as “common carriers,” subject to greater government oversight than those providers have had to endure for the past decade.

This oversight will enable the FCC to enforce its “Open Internet” principles, which require that broadband providers treat traffic flowing across their networks more or less equally, and prohibit those providers from favoring certain services over others.

But opponents of Chairman Wheeler’s plan – namely, broadband companies such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, and industry advocacy organizations such as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and CTIA - The Wireless Association – aren’t going down without a fight. These companies and groups have had hundreds of meetings with the FCC since last year, and held a flurry of last-minute sit-downs in recent weeks.

Groups in favor of net neutrality rules, including companies such as Netflix and Mozilla and public-interest advocacy organizations such as Public Knowledge and Free Press, have also met with the FCC hundreds of times, urging the Commissioners to reclassify broadband providers as common carriers. In total, more than 4 million individuals and organizations commented on the FCC’s “Open Internet” docket since it was posted early in 2014.

The House Energy and Commerce committee also held a hearing Wednesday, giving lawmakers one last chance to share their views on net neutrality before the FCC votes on the proposal on Thursday. Wheeler’s plan to reclassify broadband providers is strongly supported by Democrats in Congress, but opposed by most Republicans.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce committee, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in a statement Wednesday that they seek to know more about how Wheeler’s rules were developed and whether they will stand up to review by a court. But while the hearing will include policy experts, Wheeler himself was not asked to attend. Wheeler declined to attend a separate hearing scheduled for later on Wednesday, which was subsequently canceled.

The net neutrality proposal is almost certain to pass the FCC on a party-line vote, and almost as certain to be challenged in court by one of the major broadband providers. The FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order, which imposed similar restrictions on the way broadband providers could treat Internet traffic but didn’t reclassify them as common carriers, was successfully challenged by Verizon. The D.C. Circuit Court ruled in January 2014 that the FCC didn’t have the authority to enforce its Internet rules.

That ruling prompted the FCC’s current approach, which expands government authority over broadband providers so that the Commission can enforce net neutrality principles. “The proposal ... assure[s] there are basic ground rules and a referee on the field to enforce them,” Wheeler said in remarks at the University of Colorado Boulder earlier this month. “If an action [by a broadband provider] hurts consumers, competition, or innovation, the FCC will have the authority to throw the flag.”

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