The FCC has received more than 1 million comments to its proposal for rules of the road for the Internet, a.k.a. net neutrality, ranking it among the top issues of public interest before the commission.
Comments surpassed 1 million just after noon on Thursday, according to the FCC’s Gigi Sohn. She wrote on Twitter that the number is the most ever for an FCC rulemaking proceeding, “evidence of enormous public interest.”
The deadline to file comments with the FCC will be on Friday. After that, the FCC is taking responses to those comments until Sept. 10, with the FCC expected to establish new rules by the end of the year.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal calls for establishing rules that prohibit Internet providers from blocking certain types of web traffic and also from engaging in “commercially unreasonable” practices.
Much of the interest appears to have been triggered by the notion that the FCC proposal will be too weak to prevent ISPs from making deals for so-called “paid prioritization,” in which an Internet site could pay to have content like video delivered to a subscriber at a faster speed and better quality. Critics say that “paid prioritization” would lead to a Balkanization of the Internet, in which well-heeled content providers pay for “fast lanes” to gain an advantage.
That was a sentiment expressed by the Writers Guild of America West, long a champion of robust net neutrality. In a filing on Wednesday, the WGAW argues that rules based on whether an Internet provider’s practices are “commercially reasonable” would “cripple the open Internet, and will advance only the economic interests of broadband Internet access providers, to the detriment of free speech, competition and democratic discourse. Paid prioritization would fundamentally undermine the open Internet, and the commission should rule the practice per se unreasonable.”
Wheeler’s proposal also asks the public for comment on whether it should ban paid prioritization outright. It also asks whether the FCC should take another approach to net neutrality, that of reclassifying the Internet as a telecommunications service, or Title II in regulatory speak. The WGAW supports such a move toward Title II as the “clearest path toward implementing rules to protect Internet openness.”
Internet providers, however, warn that such a move would jeopardize investment and stifle progress, as cable and telecom firms are weighed down by a greater level of regulatory oversight.
Among the most vocal companies arguing against such an approach is Verizon. The company brought a lawsuit against the FCC that led an appellate court to strike down in January the commission’s previous anti-blocking and anti-discrimination Internet rules. The judges said that the FCC lacked authority to do so, in part because they had failed to first reclassify the Internet as a telecommunications service and establish its authority.
Not surprisingly, Verizon argued against reclassification, saying that it would impose “a set of highly prescriptive and proscriptive rules based on regulations written for the rotary phone.” They also argued against additional regulation on mobile broadband, even though other Internet providers, like those in the cable industry, have called for rules that apply to both wired and wireless services.
But they also suggested that many of the fears of what may happen to the Internet are overblown, in part because it is in an ISP’s interest to make sure that there is the free flow of content.
“The vast majority of Internet customers use broadband providers other than Verizon, so we must regularly send traffic over the networks of third-party ISPs, and rely on other providers to direct and connect them to the content and services they desire,” the company wrote in a blog post accompanying its filing. “Verizon would be deeply concerned if any provider in the Internet ecosystem — another ISP, a large content provider, a search engine, a major social network, an operating system provider, or any other entity — were to keep end users from utilizing the Internet on their own terms or to restrict the availability of Verizon’s services to those end users.”
Another organization submitting comments was the Independent Film & Television Alliance, which represents independent producers. Like the WGAW, they said that the FCC should adopt robust anti-blocking and anti-discrimination rules, and prohibit paid prioritization outright. But the IFTA took no position on the idea of adopting a stricter regulatory approach of reclassifying the Internet as a telecommunications service.
The MPAA, representing Hollywood studios, does not plan to submit a filing, according to a spokesman.