Despite Outcry, FCC to Push Ahead with Internet 'Fast Lane' Proposal

Chairman Tom Wheeler is not backing down on his net-neutrality rules.

Thomas Wheeler testifies in his confirmation hearing to become Federal Communications Commission chairman, before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on June 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. Wheeler testified that he supports a spectrum auction but likened it to a Rubik's cube, with many different facets that must be aligned perfectly in order to be completed. (National Journal)

The head of the Federal Communications Commission will push ahead with a vote on controversial net-neutrality regulations despite an outpouring of public anger and calls for delay.

All of the FCC commissioners aside from Chairman Tom Wheeler have criticized the proposal and two of them have said the commission should delay the vote scheduled for next Thursday. The rules would allow Internet service providers to charge websites for faster service in some cases.

Thousands of people have filed comments opposing the rules, and the world's largest tech companies sent a letter this week warning that the proposal is a threat to the Internet.

But Wheeler included his net-neutrality proposal on the commission's formal agenda for next week's meeting.

Recognizing the controversy over the issue, Wheeler waived the commission's "sunshine" rule, which typically cuts off public comments one week before votes. In a statement Thursday, the FCC said members of the public "should have full opportunity to express their views" and that the commission will consider all comments submitted by next Wednesday at 11:59 p.m.

The FCC first enacted net-neutrality rules in 2010, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck them down in January. Wheeler is trying to rework the rules in a way that can survive future court challenges.

His proposal would ban Internet service providers from blocking websites but would allow them to charge for special "fast lanes" as long as the arrangements are "commercially reasonable."

Wheeler argues that his proposal is on strong legal ground and would prevent abuses. But liberal critics fear that any "fast lanes" will tilt the Internet in favor of the largest corporations and stifle free speech.

Wheeler will need the support of two of the other four commissioners to advance the proposal at Thursday's meeting. The two Republicans, who are skeptical of any net-neutrality rules, are almost-certain "no" votes.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said Wednesday she has "real concerns" with the proposal. She urged Wheeler to delay the vote by at least a month to give the agency more time to review the feedback from the public.

"I believe that rushing headlong into a rule-making next week fails to respect the public response to his proposal," Rosenworcel said. She has not clarified whether she would vote against the proposal.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, which oversees the FCC, said Wednesday that Rosenworcel had "a very good point."

Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai issued a statement Thursday echoing Rosenworcel's call for a delay.

"I have grave concerns about the Chairman's proposal on Internet regulation and do not believe that it should be considered at the Commission's May meeting," he said.

The vote next Thursday will only decide whether the FCC will move ahead with the proposal. The FCC will have to hold a separate vote to finalize the regulations.