Under public pressure, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is attempting to salvage a plan that would allow Internet service providers to charge content companies such as Netflix and Google for faster access into US homes, with added assurances that the agency will punish telecom firms that abuse their new privileges, according to an official at the agency.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler will present a revised draft of controversial "net neutrality" rules to other commissioners as early as this week that would still permit paid prioritisation of Web content.
The new plan would attempt to explicitly warn Internet service providers such as Verizon and AT&T that they can't unfairly put the content of Web companies that don't pay for special treatment on a "slow lane," according to an FCC official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the rules are still being discussed in private. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the new proposal.
The plan lays out policy ideas but also presents questions that the agency has yet to resolve, such as whether the FCC should ban paid prioritisation, or if the agency should consider treating broadband Internet providers as common-carrier services with far more regulations.
"The proposal clearly reflects the public interest we've received on the item," the FCC official said.
But because the proposal is short on details showing how the FCC would enforce limits on the behaviour of Internet service providers, it's unlikely to assuage consumer groups, high-tech firms and lawmakers who have slammed Wheeler's proposal.
The official said the new draft asks the public to comment on whether paid prioritisation should be banned, but Wheeler will not drop his proposal to allow the controversial practice. The agency will vote on Thursday.
The public will be able to comment on the proposal for 60 days with the aim of finalising rules by the end of the year.
Law professors and consumer groups doubt that the FCC can judge if an ISP is unfairly discriminating against Web content firms on the "case-by-case basis" Wheeler has promised.
Wheeler alarmed high-tech firms including Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Amazon and more than a hundred small Web firms that signed a letter last week telling the chairman that by allowing ISPs to charge for better delivery of traffic, he would essentially create a bifurcated Internet with fast lanes for the highest bidders and slow lanes for nonprofit groups and small start-ups.
Wheeler has vehemently protested that characterisation, saying all consumers will be guaranteed a baseline of broadband Internet quality and that any pay-for-play deals struck between ISPs and Web firms would only be icing on the cake - a premium experience that doesn't take away from the experience of basic Internet.
But many legal and technology experts say that's impossible.
"With broadband, there is no such thing as accelerating some traffic without degrading other traffic," Columbia University law professor Tim Wu wrote in a recent New Yorker piece. "We take it for granted that bloggers, start-ups, or nonprofits on an open Internet reach their audiences roughly the same way as everyone else. Now they won't."
The government has struggled for years to establish guidelines on whether Internet content should be treated equally as it moves through pipes and networks to consumers.
Consumer advocates have argued that the Internet has been able to flourish because companies such as Verizon and Time Warner Cable have delivered content - whether it's a YouTube video or a Netflix movie - with equal speed, regardless of the source.
The FCC approved a rule three years ago that would have required broadband companies to treat all Internet content equally. But in January, a three-judge panel at the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the rule, saying the FCC had overstepped its authority.
- Washington Post