After months of frenzied debate, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler will move to protect net neutrality by invoking the commission’s authority under Title II of the Communications Act.
In a op-ed posted on Wired magazine’s website Wednesday, Wheeler said he will invoke “enforceable, bright-line rules” that will ban paid prioritization, and prohibit the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. The move would cover wireline and mobile broadband.
“My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission,” Wheeler wrote.
Despite hinting at employing Title II as far back as September, Wheeler elaborates on his thought process in the op-ed, saying that he considered invoking Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. He ultimately decided against that route once he “became concerned that this relatively new concept might, down the road, be interpreted to mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers.”
Wheeler’s proposed rules come after President Barack Obama had advocated for using the same approach late last year. “The time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do,” Obama said in November.
The rules deal a significant blow to large telecom companies, who say Title II regulations would stifle innovation, burden them with red tape and shouldn’t be applied due to the law being written in 1934. Wheeler addressed these concerns in the op-ed, saying that the new rules will modernize Title II for the 21st century, including no rate regulation, tariffs or last-mile unbundling.
Despite the assurances, AT&T has been previewing a lawsuit it intends to file if the FCC invokes Title II.
“When the FCC has to defend reclassification before an appellate court, it will have to grapple with these and other arguments,” Hank Hultquist, AT&T’s federal regulatory vice president, wrote in a blog post on the company’s website. “Those who oppose efforts at compromise because they assume Title II rests on bulletproof legal theories are only deceiving themselves.”
The move is a massive victory for Internet advocates who waged immense campaigns to persuade the FCC to adopt strong regulations after a court ruling last year threw out previous net neutrality rules.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has fought for new net neutrality rules over the past year, praised Wheeler’s announcement, saying it will “save the Internet.”
“Millions of American small businesses, consumers and innovators spoke and Chairman Wheeler listened. Without the open Internet, start-ups will never leave the garage,” Wyden said in a released statement. “The FCC should adopt this proposal and ensure that monopolies are never allowed to slam the door on American innovation.”
“The Internet has flourished because people have the power to choose for themselves what they see and do online,” said Alan Davidson, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “The approach proposed by the FCC Chairman today would protect the free and open Internet for a next generation of broadband Internet users.”
Doug Brake, the telecommunications policy analyst at the nonpartisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation called Wheeler’s proposal an “unjustified, overblown response to what has in actuality been a by-and-large hypothetical concern.”
“Title II common carrier regulations represent a strong shift towards a European-style, precautionary regulation, over-regulating up-front without legitimate justification,” Brake said. “This path will make it much harder to do pro-consumer network management and is more likely to balkanize the Internet into distinct private networks and specialized services.”
The rules will be circulated to the other FCC commissioners Thursday, with a full vote coming at the FCC’s open meeting Feb. 26.