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FCC chairman vows to keep Internet an 'open pathway'

Tom Wheeler pledges to use "every available power" to prevent ISPs from degrading service for the benefit of a few.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Maggie Reardon/CNET

The Federal Communications Commission is once again trying to soothe consumers nervous over details of its proposed plan to rewrite Net neutrality, after the plan leaked out last week.

Just five days after a similar blog post, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler penned a post Tuesday titled "Finding the Best Path Forward to Protect the Open Internet," in which he pledged to use "every available power" to prevent Internet service providers from degrading service for the benefit of a few.

The commission's proposed plan ignited a frenzy of criticism on the Internet after being spotlighted in news reports. The reports suggested that the FCC had changed its position on certain aspects of its Open Internet rules, including shifting its stance to allow Internet service providers to charge companies for a faster lane of service. In his blog post, Wheeler said the proposal wouldn't be a departure from the core ideal of Net neutrality, which prohibits blocking access or discriminating against Internet traffic traveling over an ISP's connections.

"At the heart of the proposed NPRM [Open Internet Notice of Proposed Rulemaking] is the assurance that it won't be possible for an Internet provider to degrade the service available to all," Wheeler wrote, saying that the Internet would continue to be "an open pathway."

"If a broadband provider (ISP) acts in a manner that keeps users from effectively taking advantage of that pathway, then it should be a violation of the Open Internet rules," Wheeler wrote.

When the FCC's regulations were struck down by a federal appeals court in January, the justices made it clear that the commission had the power to end harmful conduct by Internet service providers if such conduct was found not to be "commercially reasonable." In his blog post, Wheeler laid out examples of behavior that would qualify:

  • Something that harms consumers is not commercially reasonable. For instance, degrading service in order to create a new "fast lane" would be shut down.
  • Something that harms competition is not commercially reasonable. For instance, degrading overall service so as to force consumers and content companies to a higher priced tier would be shut down.
  • Providing exclusive, prioritized service to an affiliate is not commercially reasonable. For instance, a broadband provider that also owns a sports network should not be able to give a commercial advantage to that network over another competitive sports network wishing to reach viewers over the Internet.
  • Something that curbs the free exercise of speech and civic engagement is not commercially reasonable. For instance, if the creators of new Internet content or services had to seek permission from ISPs or pay special fees to be seen online such action should be shut down.

Wheeler also used the blog to reassure consumers that the proposal before the commission was by no means final. It's merely "a formal request for input on a proposal as well as a set of related questions," Wheeler wrote, adding that "all options for protecting and promoting an Open Internet are on the table."

Wheeler's proposal will be voted on by the four other FCC commissioners at the agency's open meeting May 15.