Policy: Technology

FCC Internet fairness policy seen eroded in pay-for-access plan

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A U.S. regulatory proposal that would let Internet-service providers charge companies for content distribution has set off a firestorm of opposition, with consumer advocates saying it may doom the open Internet.

Internet-service providers such as AT&T Inc. would be able to negotiate agreements with content companies such as Netflix Inc. and Inc. for priority Web service under a proposed rule expected to be circulated today by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Policy groups that have supported rules to prevent Internet-service providers from unfairly blocking or slowing Web traffic — known as “net neutrality” — objected.

“Pay-for-priority schemes will be a disaster for startups, non-profits and everyday Internet users who cannot afford these unnecessary tolls,” Craig Aaron, president of the group Free Press, said in an e-mailed statement. He called the proposal “a convoluted path that won’t protect Internet users.”

The FCC has been seeking to replace a rule voided in January by a U.S. court. The regulation required companies that provide businesses and consumers high-speed Internet service over wires, or broadband, to treat Web traffic equally and didn’t let them charge for faster or more-reliable access.

Wheeler’s deal

Wheeler said the proposal doesn’t abandon the agency’s Internet fairness policy. He will send the proposal to the five- member agency today, push for a preliminary vote next month, and wants to have a rule in place by the end of the year.

The FCC will test any proposed deals for harm to competition and consumers, an FCC official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the proposal, told reporters on a conference call today.

Wheeler said in a blog post today that the proposal he’s delivering to the agency will bar Internet-service providers such as AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. from blocking legal content. It also requires the companies to disclose their policies to subscribers and users and prevents them from acting “in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.”

Companies pushing for open-Internet protections have included largest search-engine provider Google Inc., largest Internet retailer Amazon and biggest online-subscription video provider Netflix Inc. They are part of the Internet Association, which in an April 3 filing told the FCC the agency should adopt enforceable rules so their services won’t be unfairly blocked, “explicitly or implicitly.”

Consumer interest

Michael Weinberg, vice president of the policy group Public Knowledge, said Wheeler’s proposal “is not net neutrality.” The FCC is inviting service providers “to pick winners and losers,” Weinberg said in an e-mailed statement.

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement the proposal is “a huge step backwards and must be stopped.”

“If the Commission subverts the Open Internet by creating a fast lane for the 1 percent and slow lanes for the 99 percent, it would be an insult to both citizens and to the promise of the Net,” said Copps, who now serves as a special adviser to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative.

“Absent net neutrality, the Internet could turn into a high-priced private toll road that would be inaccessible to the next generation of visionaries,” Gene Sperling, then-director of the National Economic Council, and Todd Park, U.S. chief technology officer, said in a Feb. 18 blog post.

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