net neutrality
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Just outside the FCC’s rather nondescript offices on the southwest side of the National Mall last week, chairman Tom Wheeler met on the sidewalk with the handful of protesters who had been camping out there, carrying picket signs urging the agency not to destroy the Internet.

“We are for, and I am for, open Internet, a robust Internet, a fast Internet — and that there is only one Internet,” Wheeler told them.

If he didn’t exactly assuage the fears of the masses, his visit did show just how much the battle over net neutrality has evolved from wonkish D.C. debate into grassroots frenzy. And with the FCC approving a proposal May 14 that will be put to a vote later this year, a rather abstract policy debate has been reactivated, this time with more at stake, more interests lobbying for their side, and
perhaps more people on Main Street paying attention.

The reason: Paid prioritization, which, barring robust rules to prevent it, would allow ISPs to charge Netflix or Amazon or Skype or any other Web-content source to send their signals faster to consumers, consigning non-paying content to a slower lane. What triggered the outcry in response to Wheeler’s proposal is the idea that his rules of the super-highway would be too weak to prevent a division of the Internet into haves and have-nots, regardless of how much he insists that the language in his proposal will prevent Internet service providers from picking winners and losers.

It was less than four years ago that the FCC, after extensive debate, put new rules in place, the most significant of which were struck down by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in January. That was what motivated Wheeler’s latest regulatory gambit: The desire to get new policies in place quickly, yet come up with language that would survive legal scrutiny.

What he discovered is that the landscape is different than it was in 2010 — certainly regarding social media’s ability to inflame passions and trigger virtual protest — but also in the rapid change in viewing habits toward Web video.

“In 2010, we were still at the point where ‘Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’ was the best example of professional content on the Web,” said Ellen Stutzman, public policy and research director of the Writers Guild of America, West. “Now we have ‘House of Cards,’ and it’s Netflix and Amazon. And it is about to be Xbox and PlayStation.”

As much as netroots are sounding alarm bells and urging strong FCC oversight, there’s likely to be a significant opposition demanding that the agency keep its hands off the Internet. Congressional Republicans will grill Wheeler when he appears before the House Energy & Commerce Committee on May 20, questioning why he’s bothering about coming up with a solution when, at least in their eyes, there’s no real problem.

Free market and conservative groups chimed in last week, warning of any FCC action that would stifle innovation and investment. In fact, Wheeler suggested that the two Republican designates on the commission, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, may have felt they were shut out of the FCC’s dialogue because they believe the “whole idea of the open Internet is not something we should be involved in. I disagree with that strenuously,” he added.

Yet ISPs are a powerful lobby in Washington, shelling out even more than they did four years ago, before the first set of rules was handed down.

Cable television, too, has a stake in the debate. The National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. spent almost $20 million on lobbying in 2013, putting it in the top five of all spenders, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The group insists it supports an open Internet, but it fears the backlash to Wheeler’s proposal may force him to look seriously at something its members do not want: reclassification of the Internet as a telecommunications service. Such a regulatory move would put cable under a new level of scrutiny, subjecting the sector’s every move to the whims of government bureaucrats.

The pronouncement of Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen concerning such a move sounded apocalyptic: “(It would) spark massive instability, create investor and marketplace uncertainty, derail planned investments, slow broadband adoption, and kill jobs in America,” he intoned.

Who knew an agency that normally obsesses about frequency interference could create such a cataclysm?

The rhetoric will only get louder and more dire-sounding in the 120-day timeframe the FCC is giving to consider the latest net neutrality proposals.

And while Wheeler may find himself under attack from the left and right, he’ll try to show he’s at least welcoming all input. He’s signaled he may hold hearings outside the Beltway, and that the agency would engaged in its own Twitter campaign. And when he met with the protestors standing on the side of 12th Street, he held up one of their signs: “Honk for an open Internet.”

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