As the five members of the Federal Communications Commission gathered this morning to vote on a new plan to regulate the Internet, protesters supporting ever-tighter rules noisily banged pots outside the building in a none-too-subtle bid to gain attention for their cause. They could not have picked a better symbol for the policies they hope to impose on American consumers.
The irony of the pot-banging was probably lost on the crowd. In FCC parlance, “POTS” is an acronym for “Plain Old Telephone Service,” the copper-line, black-handset dinosaur service of the 20th century. The ultimate goal of these activists is comprehensive utility regulation on broadband telephone service, the same sort of regulation applied to POTS service since the days of Grover Cleveland.
In the end, the FCC, on a 3-2 party-line vote, approved a grab bag of ideas for Internet regulation that left no one happy.
The vote was a response to a January appeals court ruling tossing out the FCC’s 2010 rules on “net neutrality,” or the idea that all Internet content should be treated the same. While a major setback to wannabe Internet regulators, the court left open several possible ways the FCC could redo the rules.
The primary approach, favored by the agency’s chairman, Thomas Wheeler, would bar Internet service providers (such as Verizon) from blocking any content from consumers, while requiring any providers who want to offer preferential “fast lane” service to content providers such as Google or Netflix to get approval from the FCC in advance.
Such rules would be harmful to the growth of the Internet, but any supporters of regulation (including the pot bangers) objected they did not go far enough. Although premium service offerings are common in every industry from airlines to ice cream, regulation supporters were appalled by the idea that money would be used to allocate resources on the Internet.
In the end, the proposal the FCC adopted today left open the possibility of more extensive restrictions, ranging from an outright ban on premium treatment for content providers to adoption of some form of regulation process for broadband.
Now the proposals await comment by the public, a process that will extend through September 10. Hopefully, this will give the PANS crowd (“Potential Advanced Network Services,” in FCC-speak) time to stand up for Internet freedom.