Numerous media outlets reported today that the FCC was inundated by last-minute comments on proposed net neutrality rules, and was forced by its server crashing as a result of the volume to extend its deadline to Friday. The agency has received 780,000 comments so far, more than it has ever received on a rule-making, and activists contend the real figure is higher.
In case you managed to miss it, the source of ire is a proposal by Chairman Tom Wheeler to allow local broadband companies to charge extra for a fast lane. Users and enterprenuers are concerned that this would allow the pipeline owners to increasingly discriminate as to what content gets access to the fast lane, which would entrench large and powerful content providers. As the New York Times summarized the state of play:
The agency is fine-tuning its rules to secure an open Internet, after a federal-court decision in January said it had to rethink its approach.
After the court ruling, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the F.C.C., proposed a path in step with the court ruling that would explicitly allow “commercially reasonable” deals. Such deals are typically for faster streaming of Internet content between broadband operators — phone and cable companies like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast — and online media distributors like Netflix and Google’s YouTube.
Mr. Wheeler’s plan, according to its many critics, would open the door to a two-tier Internet of fast and slow lanes, with affluent companies and households enjoying premium service and everyone else fighting traffic: a death knell for the open Internet and its democratic ethos of “net neutrality.”
A key development is that the agency is under increasing pressure to designate the Internet as a utility, which would give it the authority to impose rules. Wheeler, a former telecom and cable lobbyist, has, not surprisingly, been loath to take this step. But not only are comments coming in firmly in favor of this approach, but various officials are turning up the heat as well. From Politico:
A group of 13 senators urged Wheeler on Tuesday to adopt the Internet-as-utility strategy. Signing the letter were Democrats Ed Markey (Mass.), Al Franken (Minn.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Cory Booker (N.J.), and Barbara Boxer (Calif.) along with Independent Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
“If the FCC allows big corporations to negotiate fast lane deals, the Internet will be sold to the highest bidder,” Sanders said at a news conference. Franken called Wheeler’s proposal almost “Orwellian.”
Two Democratic state attorneys general — Eric Schneiderman of New York and Lisa Madigan of Illinois — also waded into the debate Tuesday, saying in their own comment that the FCC should avoid fast lanes and treat the Internet like a utility.
It’s surprising to see Schumer on the right side of this issue. That leads me to suspect that the venture capital industry and Wall Street, which has done very well with Internet-related IPOs, have stealthily joined this fight. They might not want to do it openly, since the telecom giants that are fighting for the fast lane are potential buyer of VC deals. That means unless a large swathe of the industry came together in opposition, it might be too risky for individual VCs to go on the warpath. But if I were in the VC business, I’d regard the “fast lane” idea as a potential killer of fledgling Internet businesses.
And many established tech executives are also joining the opposition. From the Wall Street Journal:
The comments are coming from individuals as well as companies whose business models rely on the Internet.
“If the proposed rules were in place when Etsy was founded, we would never have achieved the success we have today. Etsy, an online crafts site, and other startups will suffer if the FCC allows some companies to negotiate priority or exclusive access to consumers,” Etsy Inc. Chief Executive Chad Dickerson wrote.
Yancey Strickler, CEO of Kickstarter Inc., wrote that the company has “grave concerns” about the rule’s plan for “paid prioritization,” referring to the kinds of deals broadband providers could make with content companies for access to their fastest lanes.
“We fear the chilling effect these rules would have on innovation, the negative impact they would have on our culture, and the real harm they would do to companies like ours,” Mr. Strickler wrote.
However, despite the pointed interest of some high-profile Congressmen, the Journal deems the “Internet as utility” classification as having low odds, which appears to be based on Wheeler’s reluctance to go beyond using it as a threat (various experts contend its within the FCC’s authority).
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to write the FCC about net neutrality. Even more important, write your Congresscritters and tell them you expect them to fight for net neutrality. The powers that be need to be told loudly and clearly that the Internet is too important to let cable companies and telecom giants use it as a rent extraction device.