WASHINGTON -- The head of the Federal Communications Commission strongly defended his controversial net neutrality proposal, saying critics were "flat-out wrong" that he was reversing the agency's long-held stance that all Internet content should be treated equally.
Facing intense criticism from public interest groups, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the proposed rules he would circulate to other commissioners Thursday would protect consumers in a way that could withstand legal scrutiny after a federal court tossed out two previous attempts by the agency to enact safeguards for Internet users.
Wheeler's plan would allow Internet service providers to charge companies for faster delivery of their content.
Reports of the proposal Wednesday triggered outrage from net neutrality advocates. They charged that Wheeler -- a former lobbyist for the cable industry -- was reneging on the agency's commitment to a fully open Internet.
Complaints that the agency was "gutting" its 2010 Open Internet rules were "flat-out wrong," Wheeler said in a sharply worded statement issued late Wednesday night.
"There is no 'turnaround in policy,' Wheeler said. "The same rules will apply to all Internet content."
"As with the original Open Internet rules, and consistent with the court's decision, behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted," he said.
His comments appeared at odds with the outlines of the proposal released by his office on Wednesday.
Although the plan would reinstate the agency's prohibition against Internet providers from blocking any legal content, it would allow phone and cable companies to charge Netflix and other companies to put their content in a super-fast lane on the information superhighway.
The plan appears to violate a basic principle of net neutrality that all similar content should be treated equally.
According to the FCC, Wheeler's proposal would require network owners to provide a baseline level of service to subscribers. The FCC didn't define how fast that service would be and that is one of the details that would be worked out in coming months.
Internet service providers would have to act in a "commercially reasonable manner" in making such high-speed delivery deals with companies, and their actions would be subject to review by the FCC on a case-by-case basis.
Public interest groups and consumer advocates complain the plan would give great power to broadband providers such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to be gatekeepers of Internet services, and that costs ultimately would be passed on to users.
Todd O'Boyle, program director of Common Cause's Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, said Wednesday that Wheeler's proposal was "net neutrality in name only."
"Americans were promised, and deserve, an Internet that is free of toll roads, fast lanes and censorship — corporate or governmental," he said. "If Wheeler's rules deliver anything less, that would be a betrayal."
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