FCC Vote Could Open Internet Fast Lanes

May 15, 2014

With a three-to-two vote today, the FCC released a controversial set of proposed rules on Internet openness.

A leaked draft version had provoked protests among many who worried that the FCC was shirking its responsibility to protect open access.

Today, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler struck an emphatically reassuring tone, saying the proposal does not authorize paid prioritization. But numerous observers claim that that’s exactly what it does.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic discusses the proposed rules with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.


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In a three to one vote today, the FCC advanced a controversial plan that could lead to an internet fast lane. It opens up the possibility that internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon could charge website for access to higher speed connections. That upsets supporters of so-called net-neutrality, who want the same internet connection speeds for everyone.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler tried to strike a reassuring tone.

TOM WHEELER: Personally, I don't like the idea that the internet could be divided into haves and have nots. And I will work to see that that does not happen. In this item, we specifically ask whether and how to prevent the kind of paid prioritization that could result in fast lanes.

PFEIFFER: Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic who's written about this issue. Hi Derek, thanks for talking with us.

DEREK THOMPSON: Hi, good to be here.

PFEIFFER: And because this issue can be complicated, would you first recap for us why the issue of net neutrality is so heated.

THOMPSON: I think people are passionate about net neutrality because they're passionate about the internet, they're passionate about an open internet, a free internet, and internet that is a perpetual frontier for innovation. It's the future of communications.

And the real fear here is that if we abandoned net neutrality, if we abandoned the idea that all information on the internet should be treated equally, it'll mean it will be harder for a new company in the future of this perpetual frontier to do cool stuff on the internet, that they'll be at an automatic disadvantage because the information that they're providing, the service that they're creating is going to be discriminated against. It's going to travel across the pipe slower.

So if the next YouTube comes along and it's necessarily going to run slower than the old YouTube, the existing YouTube, then that means that the incumbents have all the power. And we're not going to see the next generation of cool stuff grow up organically.

PFEIFFER: And that's a really important point. I hope we have time to get back to that, the idea that if you're a start up with not particularly deep pockets, you may be disadvantaged.

But one more sort of clarifying question, which is, when we talk about a fast lane, it's not, as I understand it, that consumers like you and me would get a bigger bill. It's just that companies like Verizon could charge say a Netflix for faster service. Right? Now that could trickle down to consumer, but is that the idea?

THOMPSON: Right. The concern here is, I guess, two-fold really from the net neutrality advocates. It's one that there is the creation of two different lanes of speed that the old guys who have all the money can pay for the fast lane, and the new guys, who don't have enough money, can't afford to pay for that fast lane, and so they're stuck, you know not in the HVO lane of the inter webs.

The other fear is that once you start charging for these services, those charges begin to trickle down. And as they trickle down, then we end up having to pay more for these services because all these other companies are essentially paying tolls in order to get the same treatment of, say, Netflix.

PFEIFFER: Now the FCC says we don't want to slow anybody down, but just by virtue of possibly allowing certain companies to have a faster speed, that seems like a relative slowdown for other people. And there's an analogy that I love, which is it's like you're on the New Jersey Turnpike and you don't have an easy pass. So you're stuck paying, sort of handing cash over at the tolls.

Do you agree with the competitive disadvantage argument here?

THOMPSON: Yeah, I mean I think that the metaphor for a street is it's overused. But it's over used for a reason, which is that it's extremely affective. The internet, you know, is famously a series of pipes and information is flowing through those pipes.

And you know, people like Netflix, who are concerned that because they take up about a third of web traffic at night, they're concerned that their stuff is going to go slowly. And so they're saying we should be able to pay people like Comcast in order to assure that our streaming is clear, and it's affective, and it's fast.

But, right, once you start adding lanes and saying that this is a place where old companies can be assured that they're going to have uninterrupted service, it necessarily makes the rest of the internet a little bit like a slow lane.

PFEIFFER: Now, in January, the D.C. Circuit Court ruled that the FCC does not have the authorization to stop internet providers from charging more for faster service. So given that quote ruling, was the FCC forced into this new position?

THOMPSON: They were a bit forced into this new position. And I think behind the news is the question of what is the internet? Is it a public utility? Is it something where the FCC should actually have significantly more regulatory power over it than it has already? And essentially the D.C. court was saying it seems like you're treating the internet like a public utility without actually calling it that.

So there are some people, I think, who are, you know, net neutrality advocates saying essentially, look, if we want to ensure an open and free internet for the future, the best way to do that is to essentially have the FCC reclassify it as a utility so that it can prevent the kind of deals that we see creating so-called fast lanes for places like Netflix.

PFEIFFER: And that issue of whether or not the Internet should be thought of as a utility is really a fundamental question here. You know, there's that idea of whether it needs to be heavily regulated just like we transport and electricity. Do we need to regulate how we transport data? Or if we do that, does it end up sort of crushing the Internet and sort of creating fewer incentives or destroy the incentive for companies to create new, online technologies?

Derek, based on your reporting, what are your thoughts about that? Is there a utility aspect to the Internet that should require regulation?

THOMPSON: On the one hand, you're absolutely right. The Internet, to a certain extent, is becoming just as important to modern life as something, like, electricity or water. And we've concluded essentially that these things are necessary enough that we've classified them as public utilities. On the other hand, it's extremely, extremely expensive to build out this infrastructure in order to create the Internet, to build out what takes Comcast and Verizon billions and billions of dollars of investments every year.

So they're saying we need incentives, and we need the possibility of rewards for spending all this money. And there you have attention is that it's this thing that's highly important, but also requires significant investment from private companies. And as a result, the FCC is struggling with how exactly to deal with this.

PFEIFFER: And it seems like that's the argument from sort of more established companies. Let's go back to the point you raised earlier, which is say you're a startup and you don't particularly have a lot of funding yet. Do you think this could end up being an innovation killer, or kind of dampen entrepreneurship if you just can't afford to have the same speeds, and therefore, your product isn't as attractive to consumers as companies who can afford for a faster lane?

THOMPSON: I think the best way to think about this is that it's not about the companies that exist today. It's about the companies that might exist in the next year or in the next two years. Right now we have essentially an open and free Internet.

There aren't deals right now so that, you know, WBUR streaming traffic is slower than The Atlantic.com's traffic or than Business Insider's traffic, New York Times.com's traffic. At the same time, you want to keep this playing field rather even so that the next WBUR and the next Atlantic and the next New York Times essentially have the same opportunities to do the wonderful stuff that we're trying to do.

PFEIFFER: That's Derek Thompson. He's a senior editor for The Atlantic. Derek, thank you.

THOMPSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.