FCC switches gears; backs 'fast lane' for some internet providers
The long fight for a free and open internet for all appears over. The Federal Communications Commission will propose rules that would allow giant broadband companies to charge more for faster streaming of content, pushing smaller entities to the sidelines.
The move could dramatically reshape the Web experiences of consumers, where videos for ESPN.com, Facebook or YouTube might be delivered more smoothly because of payments to broadband providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon. The streaming videos of a smaller competitor could be halted with buffering and low-quality images if those firms aren't able to pay ISPs access to faster Internet lanes into American homes.
In a proposal to be voted on May 15, the chairman of the FCC said new so-called net neutrality rules would prohibit broadband providers from straight out blocking sites and slowing down content in an anticompetitive manner. In a press briefing Thursday, the FCC is expected to outline criteria for its determination of unfair and anticompetitive business practices.
The move represents a retreat from the agency's position in past years on the net neutrality principle, in which Internet providers must treat all web content equally.
"Broadband providers would be required to offer a baseline level of service to their subscribers, along with the ability to enter into individual negotiations with content providers," an FCC official said on the conditional of anonymity. "In all instances, broadband providers would need to act in a commercially reasonable manner subject to review on a case-by-case basis."
Anyone trust Comcast to act in a "commercially reasonable manner"? I thought so. Sure, the FCC says they will review on a case by case basis, but the precedent will be set and what's "reasonable" for some will probably not be for others.
The Wall Street Journal is characterizing the new regs as an effort to find "middile ground" in the debate:
This latest plan is likely to be viewed as an effort to find a middle ground, as the FCC has been caught between its promise to keep the Internet open and broadband providers' desire to explore new business models in a fast-changing marketplace. It likely won't satisfy everyone, however. Some advocates of an open Internet argue that preferential treatment for some content companies inevitably will result in discriminatory treatment for others.
The proposal would open the door to new products from companies such as Apple Inc which has explored the idea of offering a video service that would rely on a dedicated portion of the broadband pipe. Like the FCC's previous open Internet rules, the proposal wouldn't apply to wireless carriers, which aren't governed by any net-neutrality rules.
Sorry, but there is no "middle ground" in this debate between absolute freedom of the internet and something far less than that. Trade groups representing smaller companies reacted harshly to the proposal:
"For technologists and entrepreneurs alike this is a worst-case scenario," said Eric Klinker, chief executive of BitTorrent Inc., a popular Internet technology for people to swap digital movies or other content. "Creating a fast lane for those that can afford it is by its very definition discrimination."
Some consumer advocacy groups reacted strongly against the proposal. The American Civil Liberties Union said, "If the FCC embraces this reported reversal in its stance toward net neutrality, barriers to innovation will rise, the marketplace of ideas on the Internet will be constrained, and consumers will ultimately pay the price." Free Press, a nonpartisan organization that is a frequent critic of the FCC, said, "With this proposal, the FCC is aiding and abetting the largest ISPs in their efforts to destroy the open Internet."
The proposal doesn't address the separate issue of back-end interconnections, or peering, between content providers and broadband networks. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently called for the FCC to regulate peering as part of net neutrality, but Mr. Wheeler has said the two issues are distinct.
It's a possibility that consumers would be charged an additional fee by broadband companies to fully access this "fast lane" content. That would be in additon to whatever fees are charged by the content provider. Streaming your favorite content might get very expensive.
Not a good day for net neutrality.