FCC Votes To Open Debate On New Net Neutrality Rules

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to move forward with considerations on a proposal for new open Internet rules. What exactly is in the proposal?

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Federal Communications Commission meetings usually don't cause much excitement, but today's did. The FCC voted to open up public debate on proposed Internet rules. There were protests before and during the meeting. And inside the meeting room and across the country, there's a lot of concern that the Web, as we know it, is in peril.

NPR's Laura Sydell has more.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: A few weeks back, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced he would propose new rules to govern Internet traffic. There were suggestions that his proposals would permit broadband providers, like Comcast or Verizon, to charge extra to get on a fast lane into consumers' homes. So Netflix could make a deal with Comcast to get better speeds than, say, Amazon. Leaks and rumors about the proposals drew public ire.

During today's meeting, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn acknowledged that the protest, which included her own objections - had an impact on what was being introduced today.

MIGNON CLYBURN: This item has changed considerably over the last few weeks. And I appreciate the chairman for incorporating my many requests to do so.

SYDELL: Clyburn also made it clear that the vote taking place was on proposed rules, not final ones.

CLYBURN: This item is an official call inviting interested parties to comment, to discuss pros and cons of various approaches, and to have a robust dialogue about the best path forward.

SYDELL: But not all five commissioners were even ready to vote to open dialogue on any rules made by the FCC. Two commissioners, both Republican appointees, raised objections. Commissioner Ajit Pai said Congress should be consulted before taking action.

AJIT PAI: A dispute this fundamental is not for us - five unelected individuals - to decide. Instead, it should be resolved by the people's elected representatives.

SYDELL: Though public comments were not being taken at this meeting, the topic of open Internet rules brings out such passions that a protester in the audience had to be escorted out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (unintelligible) a free and open Internet. We want

(SOUNDBITE OF A GAVEL)

TOM WHEELER: Please. Please, we're trying to move ahead.

SYDELL: That's Chairman Tom Wheeler whose approach to keeping the Internet open has been at the center of criticism from all sides. Previous open Internet rules were challenged by broadband providers such as Comcast and Verizon. And a federal appeals court struck down the last version of the rules in January. But the court left room for the commission to take more limited action. Wheeler says working within the framework of the court's decision is the best way forward.

WHEELER: My preference has been to follow the road map laid out by the D.C. circuit in the belief that it was the fastest and best way to get protections in place.

SYDELL: But many believe Wheeler's approach is too weak and say it will draw more litigation, and let broadband providers sell fast lanes to consumers to the highest bidder. They want the FCC to reclassify the Internet under something called Title II. This would make broadband more like phone lines, which the FCC regulates heavily. Wheeler says the new proposal asks for public comment on the issue of reclassification.

WHEELER: This rulemaking begins the process by putting forth a proposal, asking important and specific questions, and opening the discussion to all Americans.

SYDELL: With so many Americans online, opinions about the future of the Internet are not hard to find. The public has two months to express them, and the commission another two months to respond before it crafts and votes on final rules.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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