After years of setbacks, the supporters of “net neutrality” have begun a full-throated counterattack this week. On Wednesday, 150 tech companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Netflix asked the Federal Communications Commission to preserve a core principle that has guided the Internet’s exponential growth since its advent decades ago.
At issue are new FCC rules announced last month that allow Internet providers such as Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T to treat some content on the Internet differently. For example, they can create "fast lanes" that will move content across the Internet more quickly, but companies like Google and Facebook will have to pay to use it. This, critics say, is a violation of net neutrality, in which all content – whether it's a Netflix stream or an e-mail to grandma – is treated the same.
Internet providers such as Comcast say it's common sense that companies that make more demands on their networks – like Netflix – should pay more for quicker service. Critics say this would turn the Internet – one of the greatest engines of innovation and freedom in the 21st century – into the playground of the highest bidders.
So far, tech companies have been curiously quiet as the FCC has moved toward granting Comcast, Verizon, and the rest their wishes. But the open letter marks tech companies' growing concerns. The proposed new rules represent “a grave threat to the Internet,” these companies wrote.
“The innovation we have seen to date happened in a world without discrimination,” the letter continued. “An open Internet has also been a platform for free speech and opportunity for billions of users…. Instead of permitting individualized bargaining and discrimination, the Commission’s rules should protect users and Internet companies ... against blocking, discrimination, and paid prioritization, and should make the market for Internet services more transparent.”
The commission’s new rules came after federal courts struck down the FCC’s previous regulations, which protected an open Internet. In January, a federal judge ruled the FCC lacked the statutory power to forbid Verizon from creating a fast lane. In 2010, another federal judge ruled the agency could not forbid Comcast from slowing down certain file-sharing sites that were deluging its networks.
But Wednesday's letter, as well as the intensity of protests from consumer and social advocates in recent weeks, have begun to have an effect on the FCC’s board of five commissioners. Two of the Democrats on the commission have begun to express doubts about the proposal – though neither has rejected it.
On Wednesday, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called for the agency’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, to postpone next week’s vote on the new rules.
“His proposal has unleashed a torrent of public response,” Ms. Rosenworcel said Wednesday in a speech in Washington. “Tens of thousands of e-mails, hundreds of calls, commentary all across the Internet. We need to respect that input and we need time for that input. So while I recognize the urgency to move ahead and develop rules with dispatch, I think the greater urgency comes in giving the American public opportunity to speak right now, before we head down this road.”
The other Democrat on the commission, Mignon Clyburn, also noted the overwhelming negative response to the proposed new rules, citing more than 100,000 letters from a host of Americans “to keep the Internet free and open.”
“There is no doubt that preserving and maintaining a free and open Internet is fundamental to the core values of our democratic society,” Mr. Clyburn wrote in a blog post on the FCC site Wednesday. “[And] I have an unwavering commitment to its independence.”
An FCC spokesman said Wednesday that Chairman Wheeler intended to keep the May 15 vote to move the proposal forward. According to FCC rules, the commission can no longer accept public input a week before next Wednesday’s vote, which means lobbyists and other interested parties may no longer offer opinions beginning Thursday.
Wheeler has rejected claims that the new rules gut net neutrality. The commission would allow a fast lane in “commercially reasonable” circumstances, which would be subject to a case-by-case review.
The two Republicans on the commission support the end of the net neutrality principle and support the idea that its demise will spur to greater investment in the Internet’s hard-wire networks.
“When Congress told us to encourage broadband deployment by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, it also established the policy of the United States to ‘preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet ... unfettered by Federal or State regulation,’ ” said Ajit Pai, one of the commissioners, in a February statement. “Whatever the Commission does as it moves forward, it must take that statutory command to heart.”