- The Federal Communications Commission has approved its strongest network neutrality rules yet.
- Three Democrats, including chairman Tom Wheeler, voted for the rules. The two Republicans dissented.
- The new rules reclassify internet access so it will be regulated like a public utility.
- The rules apply to both home broadband connections and the wireless networks that power smartphones.
The vote is a victory for network neutrality activists
Network neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all internet traffic equally. It says your ISP shouldn’t be allowed to block or degrade access to certain websites or services, nor should it be allowed to set aside a "fast lane" that allows content favored by the ISP to load more quickly than the rest.
The rules the FCC approved on Thursday were stronger than the ones Wheeler originally proposed last May. That proposal had attempted to protect network neutrality while staying within the bounds of a 2014 ruling that had invalidated the FCC's previous network neutrality rules. Critics argued that Wheeler's initial proposed rules were too weak, leaving a big loophole that would allow broadband providers to engage in exactly the kind of discriminatory behavior that network neutrality rules are supposed to prevent.
Network neutrality advocates wanted to regulate broadband providers as public utilities, a step known to insiders as "reclassification." This move would give the agency broader authority to establish network neutrality rules. The activists mounted a successful lobbying campaign, submitting millions of comments to the agency urging a stronger stance. They gained an important ally in November when President Barack Obama endorsed reclassification.
The protests worked, prompting Wheeler to back stronger rules earlier this month. Here are Wheeler's comments prior to today's vote:
The FCC's Republican commissioners blasted the move
The FCC vote fell along party lines, with the two Republicans on the commission opposing Chairman Wheeler's proposal. In comments before the vote, both commissioners blasted the move as a big government overreach.
"We need to be focused on ways to promote deployment," said Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. He argued that with its network neutrality vote, the FCC was "creating a vicious cycle where regulation deters investment in broadband, which stimulates more regulation."
The other Republican on the commission, Ajit Pai, agreed. He described the vote as a "monumental shift toward government control of the internet."
Wheeler disagreed. "This is no more a plan to regulate the internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech," he said. "The action that we take today is about the protection of internet openness."
Pai and O'Rielly are in the minority on the FCC, but they have powerful allies in Congress. In January, two key Republican leaders announced plans to draft legislation that would protect network neutrality but take reclassification off the table. But so far that proposal has gotten a cold reception from Democrats, who prefer the stronger rules the FCC approved today.
The text of the new regulations may not be released for days
Consistent with longstanding practice, the FCC did not release its proposal in advance of today's vote. And the agency is not expected to release its rules, which are reported to be 317 pages long, later today either.
However, the agency has released a four-page fact sheet describing its major provisions. And it reads like a wishlist for network neutrality activists. The rules will cover both wired and wireless networks, and it may also govern negotiations between last mile ISPs (such as Comcast or Verizon) and content providers (such as Netflix or Facebook).
The rules would prohibit ISPs from blocking or throttling disfavored content. They would also ban paid prioritization — the practice of accepting payment to give some content a higher priority than others. Finally, it would require ISPs to be more transparent about how they run their networks.