Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is going forward with a vote tomorrow on rules to allow paid fast lanes for Web traffic as artists protest and corporate chieftains warn him against going too far.
What began as an inside-Washington fight a decade ago over a nascent Internet has now become a populist issue around the U.S., attracting a street protest and resistance from Wheeler’s fellow Democrats whose votes the chairman needs for a majority.
Wheeler’s plan either threatens the open Internet by omitting guarantees traffic will be treated equally -- a point made in a letter signed by artists including punk rocker Jello Biafra -- or threatens companies with micromanagement including rate regulation if the FCC chooses another path -- a point raised by Comcast Corp. Chief Executive Officer Brian Roberts.
“People are attached to this issue because they’re attached to what they can do on the Internet,” said Bartees Cox, a spokesman for the Washington-based policy group Public Knowledge that opposes the proposal. “When you start telling citizens some things are going to be slowed down, and there are slow and fast lanes -- a lot of people aren’t OK with that.”
Wheeler last month proposed letting service providers such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast negotiate deals on a case-by-case basis with content makers such as Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. for preferential connections to consumers’ TVs and computers.
The FCC’s two Republican commissioners have expressed hostility to new open-Internet rules, and congressional Republicans have warned Wheeler not to go too far. On the opposite side, Democratic senators are calling for “clear, strong protections” for an open Internet.
The last time the FCC decided so-called net neutrality rules, in 2010, it voted after a year of discussion that drew more than 114,000 comments from companies and individuals. Now, four months after a court threw out those rules, comments have already passed the 100,000 mark, according to a count by one agency member.
The preliminary vote at the FCC’s monthly meeting tomorrow takes place against a background of dissent from Wheeler’s fellow Democrats. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has called for at least a month of delay and Mignon Clyburn has blogged her disapproval of letting companies pay for priority passage.
Neither commissioner has publicly stated support for Wheeler’s proposal, creating problematic math since the chairman needs each for a majority at the five-member agency.
If Wheeler prevails the agency will take comments with the aim of holding a second vote and having rules in place by year’s end.
Even as protesters camp out in front of FCC headquarters, film director Oliver Stone, rocker Biafra and actor Mark Ruffalo signed onto a letter yesterday opposing the plan. Their letter laid out one reason the issue attracts passion -- for promising power to the individual, in an age of large communications corporations.
“Allowing broadband providers to control this once-open platform shifts power away from individual artists and creators,” said the signers, who also included comedian Fred Armisen and the music group OK Go.
Official Washington has engaged, too.
Six Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told the FCC in a letter to reject new regulations. Choosing to put Web traffic under rules designed for the monopoly-led telephone networks of the last century would “create tremendous legal and marketplace uncertainty and would undermine your ability to effectively lead the FCC,” the senators told Wheeler.
That echoed yesterday’s letter from Roberts, chief of the largest U.S. cable-TV company, and 27 other business and trade group leaders. They told the FCC that rules included for consideration in parts of Wheeler’s proposal may give the agency power to set prices for Web traffic.
The agency would be on a “slippery slope,” said signers of the companies’ letter, who also included AT&T’s Randall Stephenson and Verizon’s Lowell McAdam, chairmen of the two biggest U.S. telephone companies.
Wheeler considers such rules to be a “viable option,” an FCC adviser, Gigi Sohn, said in a Twitter chat yesterday.
Wheeler still prefers a case-by-case approach that would grant the agency less power over Web services, said an agency official who spoke on condition of not being named because the proposal hasn’t been made public. His proposal doesn’t mention pricing, the official said.
Wheeler has heard from the other side, too. On May 7, Internet companies Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and others in a letter said the fast-lane proposal would let service providers discriminate against Internet companies and impose new tolls.
Yesterday Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, took to the Internet site Reddit and urged participants to contact Washington.
“The calls, e-mails, and comments ARE making a difference,” Wyden said on Reddit. “An important thing the Reddit community can do RIGHT NOW, is urge their Congress person not to sign onto any letters that are intended to undermine net neutrality,” or the idea that all Web traffic should be treated equally.
Sohn, the FCC adviser, attracted Twitter posts calling for tough rules during her hour-long chat yesterday.
“Chairman is delighted that so many people care deeply about the issues,” Sohn wrote.
Wheeler met today with protesters outside FCC headquarters in Washington and held a sign asking drivers to “Honk for the Open Internet,” according to a Twitter posting today by Sohn.