WASHINGTON — Federal regulators Thursday floated a new set of rules for the Internet that would guarantee open access but also permit service providers to charge extra to websites to have their content delivered more quickly.
The split vote by the five-member Federal Communications Commissions triggered sharp reactions from within the nation’s technology community, with many companies joining free-speech advocates to argue the measure could undermine a central tenet that all Web traffic should be treated equally, known as Net Neutrality.
Two Democratic commissioners on the panel joined fellow Democrat and chairman Tom Wheeler in backing the proposal, while the commission’s two Republicans opposed it. The vote is merely the start of the process; it created a four-month public comment period that commissioners will use to inform their next vote. Wheeler has said he wants the new rules to be in place by the end of the year.
As pushed by Wheeler, the proposed rules would ensure Web users have “robust, fast and dynamic” access, while Internet providers would be prohibited from blocking or discriminating against legal content moving along their networks. While providers cannot slow delivery times for some Web content, they would be allowed to offer faster delivery times for those websites willing to pay for such “fast lanes.”
Wheeler also wants the FCC to consider regulating broadband providers such as Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc., in a similar way as telephone companies, requiring them to disclose how they treat network traffic, and create an ombudsman with enforcement powers to investigate consumer complaints.
The FCC said its proposal follows a blueprint that was laid out by a federal court in January when it struck down key parts of the agency’s previous rules on open Internet. Wheeler said the main goal of new rules is to continue to maintain equal access to the Internet.
‘‘I will not allow the national asset of an open Internet to be compromised,’’ said Wheeler. “Our goal is rules that will encourage broadband providers to continually upgrade service to all.”
Moreover, Wheeler said any attempt by Internet providers for fast lanes that ‘‘squeezes out’’ other traffic, such as those from startups and small content providers, is unacceptable and would not be allowed.
But one of two Republican commissioners opposed to the measure said such far-reaching decisions about oversight of the Internet should be made by Congress, not the FCC.
‘‘Nothing less than the future of the Internet depends on how we resolve this disagreement,’’ said Commissioner Ajit Pai. ‘‘A dispute this fundamental is not for us, five unelected individuals, to decide.’’
Even some of the giants of the Web that would have the wherewithal to pay for faster delivery speeds have said the FCC proposal poses “a grave threat to the Internet.”
Prior to Thursday’s vote, more than 100 tech firms, including Amazon.com, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, eBay and Yahoo, sent a letter to the FCC that denounced “rules that would enable phone and cable Internet service providers to discriminate both technically and financially against Internet companies and to impose new tolls on them.” The letter said that such a policy would pose “a grave threat to the Internet.”
Consumer organizations also moved swiftly in unison to condemn the FCC plan.
“Let’s be clear. Any proposal to allow fast lanes for the few is emphatically not Net neutrality,” said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner who is now an adviser to the advocacy group Common Cause. “The FCC could have moved decisively to guarantee that the Internet remains an open platform for free expression and the exchange of democracy-sustaining communications. Instead, the Commission again left broadband users without the protections they deserve.”
One of the nation’s largest Internet providers, Verizon, said it was “committed” to an open Internet “regardless of what the FCC does.” However, the telecom giant warned against another provision in the FCC’s proposal: subjecting broadband providers to tighter government regulation.
“For the FCC to impose 1930s utility regulation on the Internet would lead to years of legal and regulatory uncertainty and would jeopardize investment and innovation in broadband,’’ Verizon said.
Meanwhile, Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a longtime advocate of open-Internet regulation, called on the FCC to declare that broadband providers are public utilities, like telephone or electric companies. This would give the agency broad powers to regulate the business practices of Internet service providers.
“Internet access today is like traditional phone service decades ago — we can’t live or work without it,” Markey said. “In order to preserve a truly open and free Internet, we must stop broadband behemoths from setting up fast and slow lanes and picking winners and losers.”