Future Tense

The FCC’s Plan to Protect the Internet

Sens. Leahy and Blumenthal explain why the commission’s net neutrality rules should be adopted.

Federal Communication Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.
Federal Communication Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

Most Americans believe that when they sign up for Internet access with a broadband provider, they are paying to access the lawful content and services of their choice. But without crucial protections, the relationship can quickly be reversed—instead of selling their customers access to the Internet, broadband providers can effectively sell privileged, fast access to their customers to the highest bidders. By limiting their subscribers’ access to only the websites that can afford to pay, or by blocking or throttling lawful content, broadband providers have the potential to thwart the Internet’s role as an engine of economic growth, democracy, and free speech.

Internet users have now gone more than a year without crucial protections in place that guarantee their right to access the lawful content and services of their choice. The Federal Communications Commission is on the brink of putting those protections back in place. Earlier this month, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled his proposal to restore certainty to the Internet by adopting net neutrality rules that will apply to all domestic broadband providers. If approved by the commissioners on Feb. 26, there will once again be meaningful rules that protect consumers and provide certainty to small businesses and entrepreneurs.

The proposal under consideration would prohibit blocking and throttling of lawful content and ban paid prioritization agreements where broadband providers sell fast access to their customers to the highest bidders. As outlined, Chairman Wheeler’s plan represents meaningful action to ensure that the Internet remains a dynamic engine of economic growth, democracy, and free speech for years to come.

There is now widespread and bipartisan agreement that open Internet principles should apply to broadband providers. The FCC received nearly 4 million comments on the issue from Americans, and they spoke almost unanimously: Consumers and small businesses want and expect an Internet where the best websites and services thrive on their merits, not based on financial relationships with broadband providers. These comments, along with copies of more detailed filings and disclosures of meetings with FCC commissioners and staff, are available online for all to see. The record Chairman Wheeler is basing his proposal upon is open, transparent, and overwhelmingly in favor of his approach.

The impact of the public comments, most of which were filed using the Internet, highlights the transformative role that online access to policymakers can have on our democracy. Preserving the Internet’s growing role as a conduit for citizen participation is exactly what Chairman Wheeler’s proposal is designed to do. Some critics have claimed that U.S. legal rules protecting an open Internet could be used by extreme foreign governments to justify their own censorship of online speech or oppressive censorship policies. This claim is plainly far-fetched. The rules being contemplated by the FCC make it clear that no entity, whether it is the government or a big broadband company, should be able to dictate the terms of free speech online. The fear of foreign entities twisting the meaning of our laws and goals to serve their purposes should not prevent United States policymakers from taking responsible steps to protect American consumers.

Republicans in Congress have now joined us in recognizing the need for net neutrality protections to keep the Internet open and equally accessible for all. Despite their stated support for the same principles included in Chairman Wheeler’s proposal, however, they have been loudly critical of FCC action, claiming that only Congress can provide the necessary protections. We feel strongly that the legislation recently put forward by congressional Republicans would not adequately protect consumers and small businesses online—nor would it provide the FCC the tools it needs to ensure that broadband service remains accessible to everyone.

By stripping the FCC’s ability to issue clear guidance, the Republican proposal would also create an avalanche of litigation each time the FCC acted to protect an open Internet. A core function of an expert agency like the FCC is to help all involved parties, from the regulated companies to the protected consumers, understand what behavior is and isn’t permissible. The Republican bill ties the FCC’s hands by limiting its role solely to enforcement, allowing it only to evaluate behavior on a case-by-case basis. Each of those enforcement proceedings will inevitably lead to litigation in federal court, with a broadband provider asserting that the FCC has overstepped its bounds. There is no need to alter the FCC’s traditional authority to issue the kind of clear forward-looking rules of the road that both consumers and providers can understand. Further, the bill as currently drafted creates a category of exempted “specialized services” that could operate outside of the bill’s protections. The end result is a massive loophole that could be used to undermine open Internet principles. This is not the certainty that consumers, small businesses, and broadband providers need and deserve.

In the midst of overheated rhetoric about government takeovers and overregulation of the Internet, it is important to remember that reinstating popular and bipartisan principles to preserve an open Internet is the goal of the FCC’s proceeding. Congress should let the FCC do its work to fulfill this important mandate and put in place protections that both Republicans and Democrats agree must exist.

This is a key moment in the history and the future of the open Internet. Targeted FCC action will protect and promote the Internet as we know it today, a dynamic platform that has led to stunning innovation and economic opportunity for millions of Americans. We must not lose sight of that goal or take it for granted: The driving force of the 21st-century economy must remain open and accessible to all. We have no doubt that that is a bipartisan goal, and we urge all sides to keep that in mind when the FCC acts on Feb. 26.  

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.