When it comes to promoting "Net neutrality," the principle that all traffic on the Internet should essentially be treated equally, the Federal Communications Commission has created a muddled mess.
The FCC on Thursday released its long-expected new proposal to revive Net neutrality rules that a federal appeals court struck down this year. The agency recommends that broadband providers be allowed to create paid fast lanes on the Internet and that providers continue to be lightly regulated.
But the proposal throws open the possibility of doing the opposite. It seeks comment from the public on whether the FCC ought instead to ban all such fast lanes. And contrary to the plan of chairman Tom Wheeler, it opens the possibility of reclassifying Internet providers as "common carriers," which would subject the companies to far more regulatory scrutiny.
It's as if the agency is of two minds about the direction forward — that, or it doesn't have the courage to fully embrace its recommendations.
That's troubling, because it leaves the future of Net neutrality and the Internet itself in question. An Internet that allows rich companies to pay for fast lanes to consumers while relegating all other traffic to congested slow lanes remains a distinct possibility.
Wheeler last month appeared set to propose a neutrality rule that would unambiguously endorse the idea of Internet fast lanes and reject tougher regulation of Internet providers. But over the past several weeks, that proposal has been the target of intense criticism.
Internet companies, public interest groups and common citizens by the thousands signed petitions or sent letters to Wheeler and his fellow commissioners protesting the toll-lane plan.
In reaction, Wheeler rewrote the proposal. The result is the wishy-washy "we think we should do this, but we could also do that" proposal released Thursday.
The principle of Net neutrality, which would bar broadband providers from blocking or slowing access to particular Internet apps, sites and services, has informally governed the Internet since its foundation and is related to similar rules that governed phone calls, the transmission of telegrams and the postal service. Though Net neutrality was formally embraced by the FCC early in the last decade, it has been in and out of legal limbo for the past four years.
That's because twice over that time, a federal appeals court has struck down the FCC's "Open Internet" rules, arguing the agency hadn't shown it has the authority to mandate them. The most recent ruling explicitly said that one way the Open Internet rules treated providers like common carriers was that it prohibited them from selling fast lanes to individual websites and services.
The February ruling left the FCC with two basic options if it wanted to reinstate some form of Net neutrality: It could recraft its rules to allow for Internet fast lanes, or it could reclassify broadband providers as common carriers.
My view is that it's time for the FCC to clear up its mess, reject the fast lanes and endorse real Net neutrality.