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Net Neutrality: FCC Boss Smacked by Tech Giants, Internal Dissent

Tom Wheeler FCC Chairman
Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, listens during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington on Dec. 12, 2013 Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler faces mounting opposition to his proposed net neutrality rules as more than 100 Internet companies sent a letter expressing alarm over the direction laid out ahead of next week's vote and imploring regulators to protect the web's openness

More than 100 Internet companies sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday expressing alarm over the agency’s proposed net neutrality rules, and imploring regulators to protect Internet openness.

The letter, which was signed by many of the largest Internet firms in Silicon Valley, was delivered as two FCC commissioners expressed doubts about the direction laid out by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the former top cable and wireless industry lobbyist who is spearheading the new rules.

One of the commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel, said in a speech on Wednesday she has “real concerns” about Wheeler’s plan, and called for the FCC to delay next week’s crucial agency vote on the matter. Hours later, a FCC spokesperson told TIME that the vote remains on the agency’s schedule for next week.

Taken together, the tech companies’ letter and the highly unusual public display of dissent by Rosenworcel and her FCC colleague Mignon Clyburn, amount to the strongest pushback since Wheeler floated his proposal two weeks ago, sparking outrage among net neutrality advocates.

The FCC’s Internet governance policies have been in limbo since a federal court struck down most of the agency’s 2010 Open Internet order in January. That order prohibited broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon from blocking traffic like Skype or Netflix on wired networks or putting them into an Internet “slow lane.”

Wheeler’s new proposal would allow broadband providers to strike special deals with Internet companies for preferential treatment — sometimes called “paid prioritization” — in the “last mile” to consumers’ homes. Open Internet advocates have long considered such Internet “fast lanes” to be anathema to net neutrality principles because they would give deep-pocketed companies an advantage over startups.

“According to recent news reports, the Commission intends to propose rules that would enable phone and cable Internet service providers to discriminate both technically and financially against Internet companies and to impose new tolls on them,” the tech companies wrote in their letter. “If these reports are correct, this represents a grave threat to the Internet.”

The letter’s signatories include Amazon, Dropbox, Ebay, Etsy, Facebook, Foursquare, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Netflix, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, and Yahoo, along with dozens of Internet startups.

Wheeler faces opposition from Internet giants and startups, but he also faces increasing internal static from his fellow Democratic FCC commissioners.

“I have real concerns about FCC Chairman Wheeler’s proposal on network neutrality,” Commissioner Rosenworcel said in a speech on Wednesday. She urged the agency to delay next week’s vote on the rules by at least a month. “I believe that rushing headlong into a rulemaking next week fails to respect the public response to his proposal.”

In response to Rosenworcel’s comments, the FCC issued a statement reiterating Wheeler’s plan to hold the vote next week. “Moving forward will allow the American people to review and comment on the proposed plan without delay, and bring us one step closer to putting rules on the books to protect consumers and entrepreneurs online,” the spokesperson said.

Wheeler’s plan would allow companies to strike paid prioritization deals as long as they acted in a “commercially reasonable manner subject to review on a case-by-case basis.” Wheeler has not defined what type of agreement would be considered commercially reasonable, but even if he does, it’s unlikely that most net neutrality advocates would support the plan.

“Instead of permitting individualized bargaining and discrimination, the Commission’s rules should protect users and Internet companies on both fixed and mobile platforms against blocking, discrimination, and paid prioritization, and should make the market for Internet services more transparent,” the tech companies wrote in their letter.

In a speech last week, Wheeler strongly disputed the notion that his plan would undermine net neutrality and declared that “reports that we are gutting the Open Internet rules are incorrect.”

In the wake of the January federal court ruling striking down the FCC’s Open Internet order, many net neutrality advocates called for the FCC to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service subject to the common carrier provisions of the Communications Act.

Such a move would restore the FCC’s authority to enforce net neutrality, but it also would prompt a major backlash from broadband giants like AT&T and Verizon — which bitterly oppose reclassification — and their lobbyists and allies on Capitol Hill. In his speech, Wheeler reiterated his current opposition to reclassification, but said the option remains on the table.

Meanwhile, another FCC commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, said the agency should take advantage of the January court defeat to take a “fresh look and evaluate our policy in light of the many developments that have occurred over the last four years.”

“There is no doubt that preserving and maintaining a free and open Internet is fundamental to the core values of our democratic society, and I have an unwavering commitment to its independence,” Clyburn wrote in a blog post on Wednesday. “My mind remains open as I continue to evaluate how best to promote these fundamental, core values.”

Next week’s planned vote would not enshrine the new rules, it would only approve what’s called a “notice of proposed rulemaking” (NPRM), and make the draft proposal available for public review and comment. If Wheeler does not feel he has the three out of five votes needed to approve the NPRM, he has the power to postpone the vote until the FCC’s next meeting.

Net neutrality advocates hailed the mounting opposition to Wheeler’s proposal.

“The cracks are beginning to show in Chairman Wheeler’s plan that would undermine Net Neutrality,” Craig Aaron, president and CEO of D.C. based public interest group Free Press, said in a statement. “The more people learn about this proposal, the more skeptical they become. That list of skeptics now includes two Democratic commissioners who have taken the unusual step of questioning the Democratic chairman’s approach.”

“We’re encouraged that both Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel are responding to the millions of emails and thousands of phone calls from people demanding real Net Neutrality,” Aaron added. “It’s time the agency took the most sensible next step and reclassified Internet service providers as common carriers. That’s the only reasonable way to ensure an open Internet for everyone.”

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