FCC Considers New Net Neutrality Rules

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced Wednesday that it would write new net neutrality rules to prevent telecommunications companies from blocking, slowing or otherwise discriminating against web content.

Last month, a federal appeals court threw out the FCC’s 2010 net neutrality rules after a legal challenge from Verizon. The court said the FCC has some authority to protect consumers and regulate Internet service provides but declared the 2010 rules invalid because the agency had failed to classify the Internet as a “common carrier” service like telephones that could be regulated more like a public utility.

In a statement, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency would not appeal the ruling and would consider its authority under existing law to write new net neutrality rules.

Open-Internet advocates fear that, without net neutrality rules, big telecom companies like Verizon would discriminate against competing content online and charge content providers premiums to reach consumers at faster speeds, which could put start-ups and minority voices at a disadvantage.

Net neutrality opponents, including many Republicans in Congress, argue that such rules would stifle innovation.

Wheeler, who recently joined the FCC and has until now made only vague public statements as to how he intends to address net neutrality, appears to share the concerns of open-Internet advocates. He said he recently discussed net neutrality with startup entrepreneurs in Los Angeles.

“Their companies may succeed or they may fail depending on whether they are truly creative and innovative,” Wheeler said in a statement. “But they and other innovators cannot be judged on their own merits if they are unfairly prevented from harnessing the full power of the Internet, which would harm the virtuous cycle of innovation that has benefitted consumers, edge providers, and broadband networks.”

The FCC is leaving its options open for harnessing the legal authority to set new rules that would withstand the inevitable court challenges from big telecom companies. Wheeler said the FCC would consider its authority under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to “encourage broadband deployment by, among other things, removing barriers to infrastructure deployment, encouraging innovation, and promoting competition.”

Open-Internet advocates, however, argue that the FCC must take the more definitive step of reclassifying the Internet as a “common carrier” service to issue net neutrality rules that can withstand legal challenges. Wheeler has been reluctant to reclassify despite support from Democrats in Congress, but he said the option is still on the table.

“Failing to reclassify would have severe consequences over the long term and prolong the uncertainty that has plagued the FCC over the past decade,” said Free Press President Craig Aaron, a staunch supporter of net neutrality and tougher regulation of the telecom industry. “The FCC has the power to reclassify. Nothing in today’s announcement forecloses this better path, but the FCC’s reluctance to take it is baffling and short-sighted.”

Wheeler’s effort is expected to draw opposition from the telecom industry, Republicans in Congress and even some of his fellow commissioners.

“The Internet was free and open before the FCC adopted net neutrality rules,” said FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who is skeptical that Wheeler’s current effort will end up differently from the last. “It remains free and open today. Net neutrality has always been a solution in search of a problem.”

In response to a popular online petition, the White House recently issued a statement supporting the FCC’s effort to establish new net neutrality rules but suggested that President Obama would not direct the agency to do so by reclassifying the Internet as a common carrier.

The FCC is taking public comments on net neutrality. For information on submitting comments, click here.