Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler strongly defended his support for a new set of rules overseeing high-speed Internet access that critics fear would give preferential treatment to big companies and wealthy consumers.
Wheeler's proposal is intended to pave the way for Internet providers to strike deals with companies such as Netflix and Amazon to accommodate their traffic without pushing others to a slow lane. The agency said it would require Internet service providers to act in a "commercially reasonable manner" and all pacts for faster content delivery would be reviewed by the FCC.
The possible creation of an express lane has critics concerned that consumers will ultimately end up footing the bill for these so-called tolls. There are also concerns that customers that can't afford to pay for speedier delivery will be left on the side of the Internet highway.
Wheeler argued that would not be the case.
"We will not allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service," Wheeler said Wednesday in remarks at the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn.'s annual convention in Los Angeles.
And if that appears to be happening, Wheeler said, the FCC will act fast.
"Let me be clear. If someone acts to divide the Internet between 'haves' and 'have-nots,' we will use every power at our disposal to stop it," Wheeler said.
That could include labeling Internet service providers under Title II of the Communications Act, and tightening federal regulations on them. That approach would mean stricter oversight as broadband providers would be treated as common carriers, which is how phone and utility companies are regulated.
Such a move would probably face strong challenges from broadband providers as well as lawmakers who are wary of heavy regulation of the Internet.
Wheeler's willingness to consider Title II with regards to open Internet rules was praised by Public Knowledge, which has been very critical of Wheeler's previous proposals.
"We're pleased to see the chairman recognize Title II as a legitimate option for going forward with strong net neutrality rules," said Michael Weinberg, a vice president at Public Knowledge. "We are also encouraged to hear him reiterate his opposition to fast lanes on the Internet, and his recognition that all Americans deserve access to 'broadly available, fast and robust' Web experiences."
But other media watchdogs did not have their concerns eased by Wheeler's tough talk and argue that a Title II approach should be a promise, not a threat.
"The future of the open Internet can't rest on the supposed good intentions of one chairman. Internet users and innovators need the certainty that comes with common carriage, not Wheeler's 'just trust me' approach to stopping harmful behavior from providers," said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press.
The FCC is expected to vote May 15 to start the formal process of considering Wheeler's proposed net neutrality rules. That process includes soliciting public comments. The agency hopes to have new open Internet guidelines in place by the end of the year.
The regulatory agency's previous efforts to establish net neutrality rules have been tossed twice by courts. Wheeler said he is determined to craft a plan that will survive the courts without harming the public interest.
"As chairman of the FCC, I do not intend to allow innovation to be strangled by the manipulation of the most important network of our time, the Internet," he said, adding that the agency will use "every power at our disposal to stop it."
After Wheeler's remarks, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who is now chief executive of the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., said the cable industry "has come to believe that an open Internet is a critical part of broadly available reliable service."
"You can count on us as a constructive partner," Powell said to Wheeler.