Observers on all sides of the issue are watching with interest as the Federal Communications Commission's vote on Net neutrality regulations grows near. The vote on Chairman Tom Wheeler's open Internet proposal is scheduled for Thursday. The FCC has been considering new rules for so-called Net neutrality, or open Internet, ever since its 2010 rules on the subject were thrown out by a federal court last year.
On Wednesday, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee was holding a hearing on "The Uncertain Future of the Internet." Subcommittee Chairman and Republican Rep. Greg Walden has criticized Wheeler's plan, implying the FCC chairman has followed President Obama, who three months ago called for strong Net-neutrality regulations.
No Fast Lane
The regulations, if approved, would give the FCC authority to ensure that Internet service providers (ISPs) give consumers access to all legal content and applications on an equal basis, without favoring or blocking some sources. The rules would also forbid content providers paying ISPs for so-called "fast lanes" offering preferential treatment.
There is concern that without some form of Net neutrality, the corporations that control access to the Internet would use their position to parcel out access to the highest bidder. When we reached California-based analyst and consultant Apek Mulay, author of "Mass Capitalism: A Blueprint for Economic Revival," he told us Net neutrality is essential to prevent a monopolistic takeover of the Internet.
"Things like this are best in the free market," Mulay said. "It's essential for small businesses that they have the same access to the Internet as the large corporations."
Many expect the proposed rules to be approved along party lines with two Democratic commissioners, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, joining Wheeler in voting for approval, while Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly vote against it. Republicans have protested the secrecy of the 332-page plan and have called for Wheeler to make the proposal public and to postpone the vote.
The FCC customarily reviews draft proposals in private before voting on them, and public comments are accepted and hearings are held before final rules are drafted. If they're passed, the regulations are published in the Federal Register, then become effective 30 days after publication.
A recent report in The New York Times indicated that congressional Democrats have balked at supporting a bipartisan Net-neutrality bill, preferring instead to let the FCC take its action. "I told Democrats, 'Yes, you can wait until (Feb.) 26th, but you're going to lose the critical mass I think that's necessary to come up with a legislative alternative once the FCC acts'," Republican Sen. John Thune told the Times.
Thune, with Walden and Republican Rep. Fred Upton, had created draft legislation that would ban ISPs from offering paid prioritization for faster lanes and prohibit the blocking or deliberate slowing of content. That legislation, though, would not reclassify the Net as a utility, as Wheeler has proposed.
"It's difficult for common-sense reforms to get through," Mulay said.