Federal regulators are trying to leave themselves plenty of power to oversee the Internet — they're just not willing to get too specific about what they plan to do with it.
The Federal Communications Commission is moving ahead with a net-neutrality proposal, but no one knows exactly what business practices it would ban. And for the FCC, that's all part of the strategy.
The commission wants a vague standard to allow Internet companies to experiment with new business models, while giving the agency authority to step in when it sees abuses.
A senior FCC official argued that "putting rigid rules in place" would not let the Internet "evolve in a natural way."
But the official added that "the government has to be in a position to oversee the Internet and intervene if it needs to."
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has repeatedly extolled the virtues of enforcing net-neutrality rules on a "case-by-case basis."
Under his proposal, Internet service providers would be required to handle traffic in a "commercially reasonable" way. The commission has done little to explain what "commercially reasonable" means.
The regulators fear that they can't anticipate how the Internet will change over the coming years.
New business models could emerge that allow companies to improve the quality of certain services, while not harming the overall Internet. Locking the market in place now with detailed rules could freeze future innovation, they fear. But the FCC also wants to ensure it has the weapons it needs to fight broadband providers who try to manipulate the Internet in ways that would ultimately be bad for consumers.