FCC Plans Next Move on Net Neutrality

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Susan Walsh/AP File Photo

The commission hints at some possible new approaches for regulations.

The Federal Communications Commission is spitballing some creative new ideas for protecting net neutrality.

In a blog post Monday, Julie Veach, the chief of the agency's Wireline Bureau, said Chairman Tom Wheeler is looking at a "rainbow of policy and legal proposals" rather than being confined to "monochromatic" options.

The post doesn't provide a clear picture of what the FCC plans to do on the heated issue, but it does offer a rare glimpse into which proposals the agency is seriously exploring as it crafts final rules.

The FCC first enacted net-neutrality regulations in 2010 that barred broadband providers from blocking or "unreasonably" discriminating against any Internet traffic, but a federal court struck down those rules earlier this year. Wheeler is now trying to come up with new rules that can survive future legal challenges.

His initial proposal sparked a massive liberal backlash because it would have allowed broadband providers to charge websites for faster service in some cases. More than 3.7 million people submitted comments on the issue, and Wheeler is under intense public pressure to toughen up his proposal.

So far, the debate has focused on whether the FCC will regulate broadband Internet under Title II of the Communications Act, which would give the agency sweeping new authority. Liberals argue that the legal maneuver is the only way to put net-neutrality rules on firm legal ground, while broadband providers and Republicans warn it would stifle economic growth.

In Monday's blog post, Veach highlighted a few of the 3.7 million comments that staffers "identified as adding to the potential ways that an Open Internet can be preserved." The proposals mostly offer the FCC a middle ground between relying on its current authority and full reclassification of Internet service.

She pointed to AOL's filing, which suggested the FCC reclassify broadband under Title II but primarily rely on the current weaker authority under Section 706 of the law. She also noted that AT&T has suggested banning Internet "fast lanes" deals without resorting to the stronger provision at all.

She said that Tim Wu, a Columbia Law professor who coined the term "net neutrality," offered an "important proposal" that would only partially rely on Title II. Mozilla sketched a similar approach in its filings, she noted.

Veach expressed interest in proposals from library and education groups that would create a new "Internet reasonableness" standard to ban fast-lane deals. She also pointed to the Center for Democracy and Technology, which suggested a "hybrid" approach between Section 706 and Title II.

Harold Feld, the senior vice president of Public Knowledge, and a net-neutrality supporter, said it's a good sign that the FCC is seriously weighing proposals that at least partially rely on Title II.

"I think [Wheeler] is socializing the idea that the FCC might in fact do Title II," Feld said. But the post also seems aimed at tamping down expectations among activists (and fears among business groups) that the FCC would necessarily choose a "pure Title II" option, Feld said.

Randolph May, the president of the Free State Foundation and a net-neutrality skeptic, said it's disappointing that the FCC is apparently taking a hard look at some hybrid options for new rules.

"This approach almost certainly would end up combining the worst of both worlds and not survive judicial scrutiny," May said.

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