(USA Today) WASHINGTON — Let the lobbying begin.
The Federal Communications Commission's tentative approval of new network neutrality rules is just the outset of a four-month process that the agency hopes will lead to new open Internet protection.
With at 3-2 vote on Thursday — and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, appointed by President Obama last fall, casting the deciding vote — the agency approved proposals that call for equal treatment of all legal data traffic on the Internet. Critics of the rules complain that they wouldn't block wealthy content providers from paying for special treatment.
Now the FCC wants all the parties involved — and since the Internet is involved, that means virtually everyone — to comment on how the agency should proceed.
Battle lines have been drawn. Stalwart net neutrality proponents — some who camped outside the FCC and disrupted the Thursday hearing — want the Net regulated like the phone system or a utility.
Internet service providers such as AT&T and Verizon want a light regulatory touch that does not box them in and allows room for innovation. And businesses that operate on the Net — such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft — want something in the middle: protections that ensure their data and content are not blocked or discriminated against, because of competition.
"The stakes are so high," Wheeler said. "Today there are no rules on the books to stop broadband providers from acting on clear economic incentives to limit Internet openness."
The FCC is adopting new rules because the previous set of net neutrality rules were tossed out by a federal court in January. The court gave the FCC an opportunity to recast them, and Wheeler presented a draft of new rules to commissioners three weeks ago.
Those triggered a furor among net neutrality watchdogs because the rules were thought to allow fast lanes to consumers' homes, the so-called "last mile," that content providers such as Netflix can buy as long as the same opportunities are available to others on "commercially reasonable" terms. Netflix has made such deals with Comcast and Verizon.
Such "pay-to-play" schemes could mean higher bills for consumers, opponents say, and create a tougher market from which start-ups can bubble up.
Wheeler was adamant that his proposals do not lead to fast lanes, but the rules, as they stand today, don't specifically ban them, which net neutrality proponents interpret as giving them the green light. Wheeler also has supported fast lanes for some public-safety-related data, such as health care companies sending electrocardiograph results.
"If someone acts to divide the Internet between haves and have-nots, we will use every power to stop it," he said.
Opponents are girding for a battle royal. "A pay-for-priority Internet is unacceptable," said Craig Aaron, CEO of media watchdog group Free Press. "Wheeler spoke passionately about the open Internet, but his rousing rhetoric doesn't match the reality of his proposal."
Thursday's vote marks the beginning of a long process. The rules haven't been formally adopted, as the agency will take several months to take comments from the public. The rules may be modified based on the reaction, and a final vote is expected in the fall.
Democratic commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voted in support of the proposed rules, while Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly were in opposition.
Critics fear who fear that Internet service providers would use the new rules to justify discriminating against content providers who are reluctant or can't afford to pay for faster lanes. They've called for more stringent oversight measures — applied to utilities and telephone companies — to be imposed on ISPs. For their part, Comcast, Verizon and other large cable companies that provide Internet access have vigorously opposed any measures that would reclassify them in this manner.
While taking questions from reporters Thursday, Wheeler called for patience as the agency collects public comments before it finalizes the rules on whether to ban fast lanes outright.
"There is nothing in this rule, in this proposal, that authorizes fast lanes," he said. In the proposal, "we ask the question, 'Should there be a ban on paid prioritization?' Talk to me after we get the input on those questions."
If an ISP blocks access to content or slows the speed below what a consumer has paid for, such practices would be "commercially unreasonable" and would be prohibited, Wheeler said.
Netflix, which occupies about a third of the U.S. peak Internet traffic and called for strong net neutrality rules, was not assuaged by Thursday's vote. "We remain concerned that the proposed approach could legalize discrimination, harming innovation and punishing U.S. consumers with a broadband experience that's worse than they already have," it said.