FCC chairman says reports of net neutrality's death are 'flat out wrong'

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Tomorrow, the Federal Communications Commission will propose new net neutrality rules that will reportedly destroy the concept of net neutrality as we know it, making it okay for internet service providers to establish a "fast lane" for preferred customers and charge an additional toll. Needless to say, those who care about net neutrality weren't too happy to hear that an organization that is supposed to protect communications might sell out to corporate interests. However, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist, says that there has been "no turnaround in policy," and calls those reports "flat out wrong."

Here's the FCC chairman's full statement:

"There are reports that the FCC is gutting the Open Internet rule. They are flat out wrong. Tomorrow we will circulate to the Commission a new Open Internet proposal that will restore the concepts of net neutrality consistent with the court's ruling in January. There is no 'turnaround in policy.' 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."

The FCC's position is that it is merely trying to defend net neutrality by keeping internet service providers from blocking legal traffic outright, and keeping them from unreasonably discriminating against traffic they'd rather not serve — just as it set out to do with its original Open Internet Rules in 2010 — only this time in a way that will hold up in court, because a court struck down those original rules in January.

The problem, which Wheeler's statement doesn't refute, is that the FCC intends to say that it's okay to discriminate against traffic if content providers don't pay the ISPs a "commercially reasonable" fee. While the FCC chairman says that "behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted," any fee might risk harming both, even if it's tiny. Today, when anyone can create software and internet services on their own personal computer, any additional barrier to entry can theoretically harm competition. What's more, the mere existence of a standard that allows discrimination, by definition, violates the idea of net neutrality. Net neutrality is an absolute concept that all traffic should be treated equally.

It's possible, though, that Wheeler is using semantics here to make the new rules sound like less of a big deal. You'll note that he doesn't say that the FCC isn't gutting net neutrality, only that it isn't gutting the Open Internet rules. Net neutrality may be at stake after all, and we'll hopefully find out soon.

Correction: This post originally suggested that the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would be available to read tomorrow, but that may not happen for weeks.

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