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The Federal Communications Commission plans to propose new rules for Internet service providers that would effectively end the concept of "Net neutrality," according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.
This news comes as as surprise, as earlier statements and proposals from the FCC indicated it would support precisely the opposite position. The reversal, if true, will likely lead to a great deal of controversy.
Net neutrality is essentially the idea that all Internet traffic should have the same priority on providers' networks — meaning, for example, that Amazon couldn't pay more to have its streaming TV data be prioritized over that of Netflix.
It has been the source of much debate over the last few years: Proponents of Net neutrality say it is essential to keeping the Internet free, while some companies say it's reasonable to pay for improved access to their customers. There's also been continued dispute about what authority the FCC and others have over Internet service, for instance whether it should be treated like cable TV or like a utility along the lines of electricity.
The Wall Street Journal, citing sources familiar with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposals, reported that the new rules would not affect the deepest levels of Internet functionality, such as domain name systems and backbone hardware. Instead, they would allow deals to be cut allowing preferential access to the "last mile" before consumers.
Theoretically, ISPs would be unable to slow or block specific websites, but critics worry that the fees charged for the best access will be easily paid by large companies but not small ones — meaning startups and small businesses will be at a competitive disadvantage.
The proposals would need to enter a process of public commentary and revision, and afterward could still be challenged in courts; previous FCC rules favoring net neutrality were struck down in a federal appeals court decision earlier this year.