THE UNPRECEDENTED flow of information on the Internet occurs largely because all sites have equal access to users. The principle is called net neutrality: No Internet service provider can give preference to, or discriminate against, a website by changing the speed at which consumers can access its content. In practice, it means upstart companies can introduce innovative ideas without first gaining the favor of broadband firms like Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T.
In January, though, a federal judge struck down Federal Communications Commission rules enforcing net neutrality. Proposed new regulations championed by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler won't fix the damage; they'd do the opposite, by allowing companies to pay broadband providers for faster transmission of their own content.
Under Wheeler's recommendations, broadband providers would be able to charge sites for preferential treatment, such as faster connections to consumers — a practice called paid prioritization. Those payments would be subject to FCC review on a case-by-case basis. While providers would still be prohibited from discriminating against specific sites, the new rules would allow for a two-tiered system. Large companies that can afford so-called fast lanes will pay up, while low-budget upstarts won't. The five FCC commissioners are expected to take a preliminary vote Thursday on some version of the new rules.
Wheeler's proposal caused an outcry in tech circles. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other Internet giants wrote an open letter criticizing the proposal, and over 100,000 people signed a White House petition calling on the agency to preserve net neutrality. In response, Wheeler is expected to release a revised version that would protect sites from being disadvantaged while still allowing paid prioritization. It doesn't do enough to preserve net neutrality.
The issue with the FCC's initial regulation, according to a federal court, was that broadband Internet was classified in a way that limited the commission's regulatory authority. But the FCC could reclassify broadband as essentially a public utility, over which the agency has more power. Such a change is justified because fast Internet service is increasingly vital to participation in a modern economy, because broadband giants like Comcast and Verizon owe their current market position to their origins as regulated cable and phone monopolies, and because in some markets consumers have no real choice of broadband providers. Especially under such conditions, providers shouldn't have the power to favor some companies' content over others.