FCC will seek comments about its latest net neutrality proposal

An upcoming proposal allowing pay-for-priority service is not finalized, an official says

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will take public comments before moving forward with a new set of net neutrality rules that sparked controversy when they were leaked in a news report earlier Wednesday.

The FCC will release a proposal soon to reinstate net neutrality rules that would allow broadband providers to negotiate with content providers for preferential treatment, an agency official confirmed Wednesday.

Some digital rights groups called the pay-for-priority proposal, reported earlier in a Wall Street Journal article, the death of net neutrality at the FCC.

But the FCC, in an upcoming meeting, will vote on whether to open the net neutrality proposal up to public comments, though the plan is not finalized, the agency official said.

Under the proposal, "broadband providers would be required to offer a baseline level of service to their subscribers, along with the ability to enter into individual negotiations with content providers," the official said by email. "In all instances, broadbandA providers would need to act in a commercially reasonable manner subject to [FCC] review on a case-by-case basis."

The FCC will seek comment on "exactly what the baseline level of service would be, the construction of a 'commercially reasonable' standard, and the manner in which disputes would be resolved," the official added.

Digital rights groups Public Knowledge and Free Press objected to the plan to allow commercial traffic management agreements, sometimes referred to as peering agreements.

"The FCC is inviting ISPs [Internet service providers] to pick winners and losers online," Michael Weinberg, a vice president at Public Knowledge, said by email. "The very essence of a'"commercial reasonableness' standard is discrimination. And the core of net neutrality is nondiscrimination. This is not net neutrality."

The FCC proposal would allow broadband providers to charge higher traffic management prices to Web services that they see as competitors, and dealing with issues on a case-by-case basis would cause confusion for Web entrepreneurs, Weinberg added. "This standard allows ISPs to impose a new price of entry for innovation on the Internet," he said.

Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron called on the FCC to pass "real" net neutrality rules.

"With this proposal, the FCC is aiding and abetting the largest ISPs in their efforts to destroy the open Internet," he said by email. "Giving ISPs the green light to implement pay-for-priority schemes will be a disaster for startups, nonprofits and everyday Internet users who cannot afford these unnecessary tolls. These users will all be pushed onto the Internet dirt road, while deep pocketed Internet companies enjoy the benefits of the newly created fast lanes."

The FCC is working on new net neutrality rules after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the agency's net neutrality regulations in January. The appeals court said the FCC couldn't enforce the rules because of the agency's own classification of broadband as an information service, not a telephone-style, common-carrier service.

The court, however, pointed the agency to a section of the Telecommunications Act that gives it broad authority to ensure broadband deployment. That section of telecom law, the court said, could be used as authority to pass net neutrality rules.

The question of content providers paying for traffic prioritization has come up in recent months after Netflix entered into a commercial peering arrangement with Comcast, the largest U.S. broadband provider, in February. The deal gives Comcast subscribers faster speeds when watching Netflix videos.

Still, Netflix, in a blog post last month, called on the FCC to pass strong net neutrality rules to prevent large broadband providers from asking for increasingly higher fees to deliver traffic.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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