A controversial proposal to amend the Federal Communications Commission's powers over the Internet advanced through a divided FCC board Thursday morning, sparking protests in 19 cities and fueling opposition that had risen to a fever pitch over the past few weeks.
With the proposal leaving the door open for Internet service providers to charge companies such as Netflix extra in exchange for prioritized broadband service while potentially forcing slower service on those that can't afford to pay, public response was swift and defiant.
"An open Internet levels the playing field in our democracy. That's why it's alarming that FCC [chairman] Tom Wheeler has proposed rules that would break President Obama's promise to uphold net neutrality -- rules that could destroy the Internet as we know it," said Victoria Kaplan, lead campaign director of the group MoveOn.org, which arranged protests outside regional FCC offices across the country immediately following the vote.
Thursday's 3-2 vote moves the proposed rules governing net neutrality into a formal public comment period. The FCC is accepting comments at FCC.gov until July 15.
After the 120-day period ends, the FCC may revise the proposal and vote on a final set of rules. Mr. Wheeler has said he wants the rules in place by the end of this year.
Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly dissented in Thursday's vote.
Mr. Wheeler initially had introduced the changes in response to a January ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit that struck down key provisions of the Open Internet Order, including rules prohibiting Internet service providers (ISPs) from providing service in a discriminatory manner and rules that prohibited such providers from blocking legal websites and applications.
The court did, however, grant the FCC general and narrow regulatory power over Internet service providers, which Mr. Wheeler cited as the reason the commission declined to appeal the entire decision. The ruling also enforced the idea that such providers must be transparent about how they operate.
Audrey Russo, president of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, said the ruling puts the FCC in a delicate position between preserving an Internet that built the U.S. tech economy and allowing changes that will help the Internet grow into the future.
"As market-disrupting technologies and services continue to emerge, our policy leaders will be increasingly challenged to protect the elements of our communications infrastructure that have, to date, served both the ISP and the entrepreneurial community well, and resulted in joint prosperity," Ms. Russo said.
Last week, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and more than 100 other tech companies signed off on a letter denouncing the proposal. More than 50 major venture capitalist firms followed suit with an open letter saying the proposal could "stifle innovation in the Internet sector."
Democratic legislators jumped into the fray in February with a bill intended to preserve net neutrality and last week with a letter from 11 senators saying the proposal "may have unintended, deleterious effects."
Emails and more than 35,000 telephone calls to the FCC forced the creation of an account dedicated specifically to emails regarding the Open Internet proposal.
By Monday, Mr. Wheeler had revised the language of his initial proposal to emphasize the FCC's enforcement powers over Internet service providers.
The latest proposal allows for prioritized service under "commercially reasonable" circumstances but explicitly prohibits "fast lane" service for content providers who pay the price; advantages for entities such as websites or sports networks owned by an ISP; degraded overall service that forces consumers and content providers to pay for higher tiers of service; and blocking or slowing service to diminish free speech and/or competition.
The proposal also raises the idea of reclassifying the Internet as a public utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, enforcing regulations through an amended version of Section 706 of the same act and of appointing a public ombudsman to investigate complaints against ISPs.
By Thursday's vote, around 30 members of the grassroots collaboration Occupy the FCC were camped out at the commission headquarters in Washington, D.C. While activists had the opportunity to speak to four of the five commissioners before the vote, many were disappointed by how little the proposal had changed despite public pressure.
For Craig Aaron, an Occupy the FCC protester and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization Free Press, anything short of reclassifying the Internet as a public service regulated to ensure equal access is a free pass for ISPs.
"For Chairman Wheeler, the choice is simple: Either side with the phone and cable lobby and set in motion the end of an open network that is so vital to so many, or stand with millions and millions of Internet users everywhere who have called on the agency to treat Internet service providers as common carriers," Mr. Aaron said.
"He can either abandon President Obama's pledge to 'take a back seat to no one' on net neutrality or get in the driver's seat," Mr. Aaron said.
On the other hand, if clogged broadband pipelines with an increasing flow of incoming traffic aren't addressed, Internet gridlock could be an even bigger obstacle to the open Internet, said Christopher Yoo, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and founding director of the school's Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition.
In a pre-Netflix era, Mr. Yoo explained, the flow of broadband traffic was mostly dedicated to delivery and downloads of short videos, audio files and other functions that siphoned a minimal amount of network traffic.
With video streaming accounting for 43 percent of total Internet traffic during peak hours, Internet service providers such as Verizon and Comcast need to expand the amount of data that their networks can distribute in order to provide everyone with fast service.
The multibillion-dollar question is: Who gets the bill for the expansion?
"The reality is [networks are] going to have to expand, add capacity to carry all of this video that we weren't watching before and we're watching now," Mr. Yoo said.
He advocates an even split of costs between ISPs and services such as Netflix as the most reasonable course of action and says the idea of a "slow" and "fast" Internet is "very remote" because content providers can use thousands of networks at a range of prices to connect to ISPs.
"Comcast has 8,000 [peering network] paid links. One way or the other, you're going to be able to find a way to get into their network and reach their customers," he said.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment.
University of Pittsburgh Law professor Michael Madison said evidence that ISPs will discriminate against content providers has already surfaced. He noted that prior to a February deal with Comcast, Netflix officials claimed its customers were receiving slower service.
Commissioner Wheeler himself pointed out instances where companies have denied certain mobile apps access to users and he quoted a portion of the D.C. Circuit Court's opinion that acknowledged ISPs have the technology to discriminate against certain entities.
Acknowledging that technical aspects must be considered, Mr. Madison doubts a final vote allowing paid prioritization can pass with opposition that includes both grassroots voters and deep-pocketed corporations.
"There is a technical and an engineering side of the debate. On one side is people who make the argument about preserving net neutrality. On the other side, you have people who say, 'Don't pay attention to slogans and catch phrases, pay attention to upload and download speed, traffic management and network speed.' The issue is, technical arguments are being made in ways that overlap with but are separate from symbolic arguments," he said.
"The Internet has gotten so big and is so meaningful to so many people's lives it may be that the symbolic and rhetorical aspects of the debate are what matters. Twenty years ago, the Internet was all about engineering. Today, it's about culture, it's about people's lives."
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com. Associated Press contributed.