U.S. telecommunications regulators on Thursday formally proposed new "net neutrality" rules that may let Internet service providers charge content companies for faster and more reliable delivery of their traffic to users.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has come under fire from consumer advocates and technology companies for proposing to allow some "commercially reasonable" deals in which content companies could pay broadband providers to prioritize traffic on their networks.
Wheeler's two fellow Democrats at the FCC concurred with him for a 3-2 vote to advance the proposal and begin formally collecting public comment, though they expressed misgivings about the plan.
"I believe the process that got us to this rulemaking today is flawed. I would have preferred a delay. I think we moved too fast to be fair," said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
"The real call to action begins after the vote today," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. "This is your opportunity to formally make your points on the record. You have the ear of the entire FCC. The eyes of the world are on all of us."
Critics worry the rules would create "fast lanes" for companies that pay up and slower traffic for others, although Wheeler has pledged to prevent "acts to divide the Internet between 'haves' and 'have nots.'"
The FCC's proposal tentatively concludes that some pay-for-priority deals may be allowed, but asks whether "some or all" such deals should be banned and how to ensure paid prioritization does not relegate any traffic to "slow lanes."
"I will not allow the national asset of an open Internet to be compromised. I understand this issue in my bones," said Wheeler, formerly a private equity investor and cable industry lobbyist.
"Simply put, when a consumer buys a specified bandwidth, it is commercially unreasonable and thus a violation of this proposal to deny them the full connectivity and the full benefits that connection enables."
More than 100 activists protested at the FCC, with signs reading "Liberate the Internet" and "Keep the Internet Free." Four onlookers were escorted out of the meeting room for shouting protests.
Consumer advocates want the FCC to reclassify Internet providers as utilities, like telephone companies, rather than as the less-regulated information services they are now. That position is opposed by broadband companies and Republicans, both in Congress and at the FCC.
Opponents have told Wheeler that stricter regulations would throw the industry into legal limbo, discourage investment in network infrastructure and still not prevent pay-for-priority deals.