Feds Lurch Closer to Rewriting Rules of Internet

Image: A Google campus-network room at a data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

A Google campus-network room at a data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Connie Zhou / Google via AP file

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday in favor of a preliminary proposal that could allow Internet "fast lanes."

Under the proposed rules, Internet providers would be allowed to charge companies like Netflix in exchange for delivering content to customers at faster speeds.

The proposed set of rules center on "net neutrality," the question of whether Internet providers should have to treat all online traffic equally.

The debate "isn't whether the Internet should be open, but how and when we should have rules in place," FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said at the vote on Thursday.

That "how" is the center of the heated debate between content creators and broadband Internet providers, as well as Democrats and Republicans.

Wheeler has insisted that he won't allow anyone to "divide the Internet between 'haves' and 'have nots.'" His plan won't let providers block content or make it extremely slow -- or otherwise "act in a commercially unreasonable manner."

The FCC will seek public comment on the full proposal for 120 days. The commission is considering regulation under two main options.

Should the Internet be classified as a telecommunications service?

First, the FCC is considering reclassifying Internet as a "telecommunications service." That would put it in a regulatory category similar to utilities like electricity and phone service.

Internet providers would have to offer customers equal access, and they would be subject to more regulation from the FCC. (Since 2002 the FCC has considered broadband Internet an "information service," which limits the commission's ability to regulate and doesn't mandate equal service for all.)

This is sometimes called the "nuclear option," and critics have questioned whether the FCC is truly considering this method -- but Wheeler has insisted that it's on the table.

Supporters of net neutrality generally prefer this option. They say allowing Internet "fast lanes" is unfair to smaller companies without the cash hoards of titan rivals like Amazon, who will be hard-pressed to compete at slow speeds. They fear that broadband companies will go unchecked without regulation.

Should the FCC be able to regulate the Internet on a case-by-case basis?

The second method would give the FCC less regulatory power in the Internet realm.

Under this option, the FCC wouldn't change the Internet's status as an information service. But the commission would use authority it's granted in Section 706 of the Telecommunication Act, which requires the group to spur competition.

That lighter-touch regulation is the favorite of Internet providers, who say that overly strict rules will dent innovation in broadband to the detriment of customers.