FCC Asks for Public Opinion, Net Neutrality Advocates Respond

July 15 was supposed to be the last day for the public to comment on the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) proposal, before a mandated deadline extension. The FCC is acting in a difficult context, with its last two attempts at establishing rules for net neutrality failing in court.

net neutrality

Photo: FCC

Industries with the most at stake in this set of guidelines are Internet service providers such as Verizon on the one end and the Internet Association, “the unified voice of the Internet economy” (including Amazon, Twitter, and Ebay) on the other. Both sides have strong opinions and very few seem to be satisfied with the FCC’s proposed rules and guidelines.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler hopes the proposal will set in place a fundamental structure to act as a starting place for regulation. Members of the tech industry largely prefer standardized regulation protecting net neutrality to the case-by-case methods currently proposed. Tech Times echoes concern over the proposed “fast lanes” whereby ISPs prioritize certain customers and content by charging higher fees to content providers such as Netflix.

These fast lanes are slightly different from controversial deals between Netflix and service providers like Verizon and Comcast. In the latter case, content providers pay fees to ISPs in order to allow their content to stream through to the customer. The current FCC proposal, however, allows ISPs to prioritize higher-paying customers with quicker access to online services. Members of the Internet Association argue that this impedes an open and fair playing field for big and small providers. Interestingly, ISP Comcast is also against these fast lanes and has gone on record saying it “does not even know what such an arrangement would entail as a practical matter.”

The Internet Association encouraged the FCC to “take strong and decisive action to guarantee an open Internet for the future.” Its website categorizes its comments in three primary points: freedom from censorship to assure Internet users can access their content, equal services to all broadband subscribers as the right of the paying customer, and equal protection on all networks whether wired or wireless.

Its comments to the FCC proposal argue against customer prioritization via fast lanes with the assertion that “reasonable network management” is sufficient to reduce congestion without the use of artificially slow broadband access.

Meanwhile, a second group of net neutrality advocates headed by start-ups such as Etsy and Kickstarter are petitioning the FCC to reclassify Internet access entirely, putting it in the public sphere as a communications utility (or a “common carrier service”). This would subject ISPs to stricter regulation aimed at protecting the rights of the consumer. Large providers fear this could stifle innovation. Those following the controversy know better than to take such concerns lightly, as they are the same concerns the tech industry echoes when net neutrality is threatened.

Along with ISPs and the Internet association, interested parties including small businesses, start-ups, nonprofit organizations, lawmakers, and countless individuals weighed in. As of 2:00 pm EST on the 15th, the FCC was forced to extend its deadline to 12:00 am on Friday, July 18.

The weight of the public’s response was so strong several visitors to the online comment system were unable to submit their comments. The Washington Post confirms that this is a genuine service obstacle and not a denial of service attack, as seen earlier this year in response to a statement by John Oliver regarding net neutrality.

At present, despite requests for reclassification, stricter regulation, and a general dissatisfaction with the FCC’s current route, it appears Wheeler will stay his course. An attempt to codify any proposal as federal law would require yet another lengthy court procession. Considering the FCC’s previous difficulties in taking this route, it is not surprising that Wheeler hopes to make some progress through a different avenue.

How much the FCC’s proposal will actively change remains to be seen. Following the new deadline of the public comment period on Friday, Wheeler and his agency will have to consider the comments and establish guidelines for an official set of rules.