The FCC's Net Neutrality Revisions Aren't Much of a Revision at All

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The Federal Communications Commission is revising it proposed broadband Internet regulations after coming under fire last week from the public, several U.S. senators, and tech heavyweights like Google and Mozilla. 

The revised language proposed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is meant to address criticism that the regulations are creating a "slow" and "fast" lane for Internet service. At the moment, the plan blocks broadband Internet providers from purposefully blocking or slowing internet traffic from certain sites, but it does allow ISPs to create deals with sites that would let them pay more for optimal speeds. For example, it would allow Hulu to pay for their streaming to be higher grade than what Netflix offers (if Netflix isn't ponying up for extra broadband speed.) So in practice, this would create a digital content hierarchy that would shatter net neutrality. 

Chairman Wheeler's new plan is the same, but different. The concept remains identical: contracts can be created for higher speed connections. However, the revisions will allow for the FCC to "scrutinize the deals to make sure that the broadband providers don't unfairly put nonpaying companies' content at a disadvantage, according to an agency official." This "revision" is flimsy, as the plan itself remains the same, just with more oversight.

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The agency official said the revisions will also comment on whether "paid prioritization" agreements should be completely banned, thereby banning major Internet providers from offering speeds to one content company (website) that they are not offering to another. To revisit the Netflix/Hulu example, the FCC is trying to ban Internet providers like Comcast or AT&T from offering Hulu a speed they have not offered Netflix. It does not eliminate prioritization, just evens the playing field for those who can afford it. 

The most interesting revision Wheeler proposes is the issue of whether or not net neutrality is the jurisdiction of the FCC at all. If Internet were to be deemed a public utility, it would be out of the hands of the FCC and privy to much stricter, nationwide regulation. Internet providers have thus far opposed this idea and will likely continue to, as it runs into issues of monopolization, affecting the innovation which stems from competition. 

The revisions of the draft are Wheeler's attempt to address the backlash from the initial proposal, though it is arguably a weak attempt, as the fundamental issues with net neutrality remain. Net neutrality means, quite strictly and literally, that Internet traffic is all treated the same way — your video on YouTube streams at the same speed as Hulu, which streams at the same speed as Netflix. In a letter to Google and other companies opposing his regulations, Wheeler said, "I won't allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service." However, even the revised draft allows for a fast lane, just a better regulated, equal opportunity (if you can afford it) fast lane.

Senator Al Franken, who has been an avid supporter of net neutrality, believes the existence of the regulations are the fundamental issue, calling for the FCC to enforce net neutrality instead. In a letter to Wheeler, Franken said the proposal is "pay for play" and that it is "antithetical to net neutrality.”

While the vote on the updated proposal is set for Thursday, it may be pushed back. An FCC official told the WSJ, "There is a wide feeling on the eighth floor that this is a debacle and I think people would like to see a change of course. We may not agree on the course, but we agree the road we're on is to disaster." Two of the five FCC commissioners have already called for a delay to the vote. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.