FCC Will Rewrite Net Neutrality Rules

Chairman Tom Wheeler aims for rewrite, not reclassification, to secure authority.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler pulled an internal proposal made by his predecessor that would have loosened restrictions on how many media properties a company may own.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wants to ensure the Internet remains “an open platform for innovation and expression.”

By + More

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler announced Wednesday the commission will rewrite its net neutrality order requiring companies to treat all Internet traffic equally following a court decision against the rules, rather than trying to reclassify broadband providers and regulate them as telecommunications services.

A federal appeals court in January struck down the open Internet rules preventing broadband providers like Verizon Communications Inc. from prioritizing the traffic of groups they favor and charging fees for premium access. However, the appeals court supported the commission’s efforts to regulate the Internet using authority granted to it by the Telecommunications Act, so Wheeler said in a statement that the commission will rewrite the rules using that law as a foundation, rather than appealing the court’s decision.

“Preserving the Internet as an open platform for innovation and expression while providing certainty and predictability in the marketplace is an important responsibility of this agency,” Wheeler said.

The FCC will consider how it can create a rule that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking content of rival companies. The commission will draw legal precedent from its set of rules requiring wireless companies to offer reasonable terms for data roaming deals, which the appeals court upheld in 2011.

[READ: Appeals Court Rules Against FCC Net Neutrality Authority]

The appeals court also upheld the transparency part of the rules, which requires network operators to disclose how they manage Internet traffic.

“We should consider ways to make that rule even more effective," Wheeler said.

More transparency from Internet service providers (ISPs) about busy networks could help those companies justify profiting from peering agreements, which allow content delivery networks to send data to users by directly connecting with a provider.

Wheeler also will keep on the table the FCC's ability to reclassify broadband providers as telecommunications services, which would extend the regulatory power the commission exercises over traditional phone networks.

Net neutrality is a central principle of the Obama administration, but Republicans – including FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly – have criticized the aim of expanding regulation as a risk to the free market of the tech industry.  

“Instead of fostering investment and innovation through deregulation, the FCC will be devoting its resources to adopting new rules without any evidence that consumers are unable to access the content of their choice,” O’Rielly said in a statement.

[ALSO: Netflix Predicts Consumer Demand for Net Neutrality]

Congress also has weighed in on net neutrality, as House and Senate Democrats introduced a bill in February to reauthorize the rules after the appeals court's decision. Republicans immediately criticized the proposal.

After Wheeler's announcement, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said the chairman should seek guidance from Congress before drafting new rules on net neutrality.

“The Internet was free and open before the FCC adopted net neutrality rules,” Pai, the other Republican on the commission, said in a statement. “It remains free and open today. Net neutrality has always been a solution in search of a problem.”

Rewriting the rules might not be bold enough for Wheeler, according to a statement from Craig Aaron, president of advocacy group Free Press, who said the FCC has a better chance of supporting its net neutrality authority in court by reclassifying ISPs as telecom services.

“Reclassifying broadband as a common carrier service would protect the Internet as a hub for innovation and the exchange of ideas,” Aaron said. “The FCC has the power to reclassify. Nothing in today's announcement forecloses this better path, but the FCC's reluctance to take it is baffling and short-sighted.”