You have to give new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler credit: He moves fast for a bureaucrat. Wheeler announced Wednesday that the commission would not appeal a recent court decision that invalidated most of the “open Internet” rules championed by his predecessor. Instead, he said, he would propose new ones to achieve the same thing: barring Internet service providers from blocking legal content or playing favorites among websites and services. It’s not clear yet how he’ll reach that goal, but he’s chosen the quickest and least controversial way there.
“Net neutrality” rules aim to preserve the qualities that have made the Internet such a hotbed for creativity and innovation, including the freedom to connect with audiences and experiment with new businesses. Some conservative critics question the need for such rules, saying there’s no real evidence of a problem. On the other hand, some liberals warn that broadband providers such as AT&T and Comcast will steer users to favored sites and services unless they’re regulated as rigorously as the local phone monopolies in the old Bell system.
Wheeler, a former top lobbyist for the wireless and cable industries, didn’t rule out taking the latter route someday. For now, however, he wants the commission to try the less heavy-handed approach suggested by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which ruled in January that the FCC had the authority to protect net neutrality but not through the sweeping requirements it adopted in 2010. So Wheeler plans to propose a less prescriptive, more flexible set of rules to preserve the status quo of openness and innovation online. He’s expected to lay out a formal proposal for the new rules within a few months.
Ideally, more broadband providers would emerge to compete with the cable and phone companies, eliminating the need for net neutrality rules to keep those companies honest. Wheeler said he’d look for ways to boost competition, such as by helping local governments offer broadband services. But aside from Google’s fiber project, there hasn’t been much happening on that front. Not only are new networks tremendously expensive, but government-owned Internet services are blocked in many communities by state laws outside the FCC’s reach.
Comcast’s recent deal to take over Time Warner Cable portends more industry consolidation, creating ever-larger broadband providers and further deterring new entrants. That’s all the more reason for Wheeler and the commission to strive to preserve openness online. And rather than waging a protracted fight over rigorous rules, it makes sense to use the authority that the D.C. Circuit has confirmed the FCC has.