By James Tuthill, San Francisco Chronicle
Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission appointed by President Obama, dropped a bombshell last week: Internet service providers such as Comcast would be allowed to charge Internet content providers, like eBay, more for faster speeds to reach end users. This reversed the FCC’s policy, which was developed over years of thorough analysis. Winners will be the Internet service providers. Losers will be consumers, innovators and startups.
That decision means that someone with a new idea to stream video content will be unable to compete with Netflix, which can pay the higher rates the service providers will charge. Innovation, which has truly been the hallmark of the Internet, will wither and die.
When Wheeler announced in February that the FCC would not appeal the federal court decision overturning the net neutrality rules, he said he fully supported those rules and would “initiate several steps to ensure that the Internet remains a platform for innovation, economic growth and free expression.” But his proposal revealed last week, if reports are valid, throws the net neutrality principles under the bus. And if it’s adopted, it will only feed gargantuan service providers like Comcast. That’s why the president must act.
In an April 24 blog post defending his actions, Wheeler said critics were wrong. The proposal would not “change the underlying goals of transparency, no blocking of lawful content, and no unreasonable discrimination among users established by the 2010 rule.”
But it’s what he didn’t say that’s critical here: that the no-unreasonable-discrimination principle was equally applicable to content providers like eBay, Twitter, Facebook and your uncle’s blog. This is the policy he’s reversing. And his proposal is awful because it will enable the service providers to be the gatekeepers of the Internet.
When the FCC adopted the net neutrality rules in 2010, it said that the nondiscrimination rule would probably prohibit a service provider from charging a content provider more for faster access to the service providers’ end users. This is the “pay for priority” principle, and it’s exactly what Netflix and Comcast agreed to in February – a clear violation of the nondiscrimination rule.
One might ask why, if Wheeler supports the principles as he said he does, he hasn’t even questioned that arrangement. And just two days ago, Netflix announced a similar deal with Verizon. Anyone who doesn’t believe this will be the new norm for delivery of Internet content simply has his or her head in the sand.
In its 2010 order the FCC said “pay for priority would represent a significant departure from historical and current practice. Since the beginning of the Internet, Internet access providers have typically not charged content or application providers fees to reach the providers’ retail service end users or struck pay-for-priority deals … . Second, this departure from long-standing norms could cause great harm to innovation and investment … . Third, pay-for-priority arrangements may particularly harm noncommercial end users, including individual bloggers, libraries, schools, advocacy organizations and other speakers … . Fourth, broadband providers that sought to offer pay-for-priority services would have an incentive to limit the quality of service provided to non-prioritized traffic.”
Imagine the leverage a combined Comcast-Time Warner will have over Internet content providers now if its merger is approved.
Wheeler is seeking to have his proposal adopted by the full omission on May 15. There are four other commissioners: two Democrats and two Republicans. His proposal requires three votes. The two Democratic commissioners may be philosophically opposed to his idea based on their previous public comments supporting net neutrality, but even if they opposed the chairman, which is politically unlikely, the two Republican commissioners would support the chairman because, simply stated, Republicans hate net neutrality.
The only ways to block Wheeler’s proposal are for either the Senate to impeach him or for the president to replace him as chairman.
Obama probably does not have the legal power to remove him as a commissioner, but he can replace him and designate one of the other commissioners as chair. And he should.
The president should appoint either Mignon Clyburn (who has served as acting chairwoman) or Jessica Rosenworcel as chair. And he should do it before May 15 so the new chair can prevent Wheeler’s proposal from becoming law.
President Obama said he supports the net neutrality principles. Let’s see if he’ll back up those words.