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The FCC just voted on net neutrality rules. Here's what you need to know.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler at the May 15 meeting
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler at the May 15 meeting
Alex Wong/Getty Images

What's the short version of today's net neutrality news?

  1. The FCC voted on Thursday to seek public comment on two approaches to protecting network neutrality.
  2. One option, favored by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, would permit fast lanes on the internet if they are "commercially reasonable."
  3. The other option, favored by many network neutrality advocates, would enable the FCC to ban paid prioritization online.
  4. Later this year, the FCC will have to choose between these approaches. Only after this second vote will the rules be legally binding.

The Federal Communications Commission took an important step toward regulating broadband internet service on Thursday, with a 3 to 2 vote to begin taking public comments on a set of network neutrality proposals.

What is the FCC doing to try to protect network neutrality?

The FCC is considering how to tackle the issue of network neutrality after a January court ruling found the agency's previous network neutrality rules exceeded its legal authority. For the last couple of weeks, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has been working on a new set of network neutrality rules that would pass muster with the courts.

On Thursday, the FCC approved a notice of proposed rulemaking, which is the first step in the formal process of making new regulations. The NPRM, which was approved by a party-line 3-2 vote, describes possible options for protecting network neutrality and asks for public comment. The public will have 4 months to provide feedback on the proposals. Then the FCC will approve a final rule that will be legally binding.

What options is the FCC considering?

When Chairman Wheeler leaked a first draft of his network neutrality proposal to the press, it didn't get a positive reception from network neutrality supporters. Wheeler's rule would have allowed internet service providers to create "fast lanes" on the internet, provided that doing so was "commercially reasonable."

Net neutrality supporters have been pressuring the agency to take a more aggressive approach, called reclassification. That means the FCC would declare broadband internet service a common-carrier telecommunications service, which would give the agency broader powers to regulate it. That could create some legal and political headaches, but it would likely put network neutrality regulations on a firmer legal footing in the long run.

The NPRM leaves both options open, and asks the public for advice about which approach is better.

Is this a victory or a defeat for network neutrality?

We won't know for sure until the FCC votes on a final rule later this year, but net neutrality supporters have some reason to celebrate. Initially, there was some question about whether reclassification would be on the table at all. Wheeler seemed to be leaning toward approving weak net neutrality rules that allowed for internet fast lanes.

If the FCC had approved a NPRM without reclassification, it would have essentially closed the door on strong net neutrality rules, because an agency can't make a policy change without first seeking public comment on it.

But Wheeler's Democratic colleagues, Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, revolted, threatening not to support Wheeler's proposal. That forced Wheeler to re-write it to put reclassification on the table. That means it's possible, but far from certain, that the FCC will establish strong network neutrality rules later this year.

Some network neutrality supporters feel the NPRM didn't go far enough. "The FCC could have moved decisively to guarantee that the Internet remains an open platform for free expression and the exchange of democracy-sustaining communications. Instead, the Commission again left broadband users without the protections they deserve," said former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, a net neutrality supporter who now works with the advocacy group Common Cause.

What happens now?

The NPRM the FCC approved today isn't a legally binding regulation. Instead, it's a request for public comment about regulations the FCC will establish in the future. So the next step is for the public to comment on the proposals.

Once the FCC has processed all the feedback, the agency will have to propose a final set of rules. That could be the weak net neutrality rules the chairman floated originally, the stronger rules many net neutrality favor, or something in between.

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