Net neutrality: Five things to watch for as FCC votes on Internet rules

Culminating more than a decade of debate, the Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on tough net neutrality regulations for online traffic.

The Democrat-controlled agency is expected to approve a proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler that would prohibit broadband service providers from charging websites for faster delivery of their content.

The vote, likely 3-2 along party lines, comes a little more than a year after a federal court tossed out the agency’s last attempt at setting rules to ensure the uninhibited flow of data over the Internet.

Since then, the FCC received more than 4 million comments from companies, interest groups and average Americans. The majority of them urged the agency to subject broadband providers to utility-like oversight similar to conventional telephone companies.

Wheeler’s proposal would do that, but with what he called a modernized, light-touch approach that would exempt broadband providers from some of the most onerous aspects of the oversight, particularly rate regulation.


Here are five things to watch for at the meeting, which begins at 7:30 a.m. Pacific time and will be webcast here.

How many times will “Title 2" and “legal uncertainty” be mentioned?

Title 2 is the section of telecommunications law that Wheeler wants to apply to broadband providers. It has its origins in railway regulation in the late 1800s and has been used to regulate conventional telephone companies.

The FCC has much more authority under that part of the law to prohibit business practices of so-called common carriers -- companies that transport people, goods or, in this case, data over vital networks.

Putting broadband providers under Title 2 is a controversial move and reverses a landmark FCC decision in 2002 that determined that Internet access should be a more lightly regulated information service.

Wheeler’s decision to use Title 2 is controversial, strongly supported by content providers and Internet companies and strongly opposed by Republicans and many big telecommunications companies.

Those telecom firms have promised lawsuits, which leads to legal uncertainty that could hinder investment in expanding broadband networks and access.

Although Wheeler said Title 2 offers the best legal strategy for the agency to win lawsuits, the uncertainty those suits will cause has become a rallying cry for opponents of his plan. Expect to hear a lot of both of those terms, often in the same sentence.

Look for protesters

Since net neutrality is a hot-button issue, the FCC has been the site of protests by supporters of tough new regulations. They’ve camped outside the FCC’s headquarters in the past and even showed up outside Wheeler’s home.

Protesters have unfurled banners at FCC meetings before being escorted out.

At a news conference this month by Republican FCC member Ajit Pai, who opposed Wheeler’s plan, two members of the group yelled at him to “stop representing the telecoms” before security guards pulled them to the ground and forced them to leave the commission’s public meeting room.

Thursday should be a joyous day for many of those groups, but they still could try to disrupt dissenting statements by Pai and the FCC’s other Republican, Michael O’Rielly. Or the protesters could just loudly celebrate.

At the same time, many conservative groups strongly oppose Wheeler’s plan and have said the FCC wants to use net neutrality to stifle political dissent. That could lead to counter protests at a meeting that is expected to feature a packed audience in the commission’s large meeting room.

How biting will Pai be in opposing the regulations?

Pai has been outspoken in opposing Wheeler’s proposal.

Fueled by the oversize mug of coffee he brings to every meeting, Pai is likely to rip into the rules and the process the FCC has used in considering them. He has objected to Wheeler’s decision, which follows standard agency practice, not to release the full text of the proposal until after it is approved.

Shortly after Wheeler circulated the proposal to commissioners, Pai posted a picture on Twitter of himself holding what he called President Obama’s “332-page plan to regulate the Internet.”

“I wish the public could see what’s inside,” Pai tweeted.

He repeated the tactic at a news conference the following week, calling it a “secret plan to regulate the Internet” and said Wheeler was misleading the public about what it contained.

But Pai also admitted the plan wasn’t all regulations. The FCC said that much of it was the agency’s response to the flood of public comments.

Pai can be creative and hard-hitting in his comments, so he’s someone to watch.

How does Wheeler defend his proposal?

Wheeler hasn’t spoken much in public since he released his net neutrality plan Feb. 5.

He’s faced a ton of criticism, and Pai and O’Rielly will heap on more of it before Wheeler, who speaks last among the commissioners, gets a chance to deliver his remarks.

Wheeler is a student of communications history -- he’s even written a book about Abraham Lincoln’s use of the telegraph to help win the Civil War -- so he’ll probably try to put the vote in a big-picture context.

But he’s also a hard-charging former lobbyist for the cable TV and wireless industries. He’s used to the bruising battles in Washington and often doesn’t hesitate to strike back at his critics.

So his comments at the meeting and in the news conference that will immediately follow could be an interesting mix of high-minded historical perspective and sharp-tongued take-down of his critics.

Don’t ignore the community broadband proposal.

Before the FCC votes on Wheeler’s net neutrality plan, the agency will vote on another controversial issue that has been overshadowed so far and probably will be again Thursday.

In another party-line vote, the agency is expected to approve a proposal by Wheeler to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that make it difficult for communities to build their own broadband networks.

The move would allow Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to build those networks. Wheeler has said that such state laws, supported by telecom companies, are inhibiting expanded high-speed Internet access.

But the FCC’s action is controversial and opposed by state officials, the telecom industry and Republicans.

The agency is likely to face legal challenges on that vote as well.

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