New rules governing Internet access – what has come to be called “net neutrality” – were disclosed Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission as public pressure mounts in favor of more open access.

The preliminary vote, in which three of agency’s commissioners supported the measure and two dissented, moves the “net neutrality” rules into a formal public comment period. After the 120-day period ends, the FCC will revise the proposal and vote on a final set of rules. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he wants the rules in place by the end of this year.

“Today we take another step in what has been a decade-long effort to protect a free and open Internet,” Wheeler, a Democrat, said before the vote.

But the idea of allowing priority access, even if it’s regulated by the government, has received heavy criticism from many companies that do business online, along with open Internet advocates. Outside the hearing protesters banged drums and held up signs calling for net neutrality. At least one was ushered out of the hearing after standing up and yelling at the commissioners.

The FCC’s rules could end up letting Internet service providers charge for priority treatment, with other traffic relegated to another tier. 

Inside net neutrality: Facts, issues, background.

“Save the Internet” protests at FCC headquarters and across the country were coordinated by the advocacy group Free Press. Chief Executive Craig Aaron criticized the FCC rules.

“Millions of people have put the FCC on notice. A pay-for-priority Internet is unacceptable,” Aaron said in a statement.

“Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel stated that they support prohibitions on paid prioritization and other forms of unreasonable discrimination. Tom Wheeler spoke passionately about the open Internet, but his rousing rhetoric doesn’t match the reality of his proposal. The only way to accomplish the chairman’s goals is to reclassify Internet service providers as common carriers,” he continued.

“The commission says it wants to hear from the public; it will be hearing a lot more. This fight will stretch into the fall, but there’s one clear answer: The American people demand real Net Neutrality, and the FCC must restore it.”

Sarah Morris, senior policy counsel for the Open Technology Institute, sees some good and bad in the FCC proposal.

“The message to the commission in recent weeks has been clear – strong open Internet protections are not optional,” Morris said. “Consumers, Internet activists and companies large and small have told the commission that rules that permit paid prioritization and discrimination will reduce innovation and undermine the Internet as a platform for unfettered access to the breadth of content online. The rules proposed today demonstrate that the chairman is reacting and moving in a better direction, and we appreciate the commission’s willingness to hear and respond to public input in recent weeks.

“Unfortunately, the commission is still operating under a framework that cannot support the real open Internet protections that we and many others seek. Under the presumption of legal authority in the proposed rules, the commission is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – attempting to respond to public outcry with assurances that will not work under a Section 706 regime. Ultimately, the commission should instead ground its rules in a strong legal basis and reclassify broadband as a Title II service.”

Also weighing in was the political action group Victoria Kaplan, lead campaign director for Political Action, calls the FCC rules “alarming.”

“An open Internet levels the playing field in our democracy, and that’s why it’s so alarming that the FCC is moving forward Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposed rules that would break President Obama’s promise to uphold net neutrality – rules that could destroy the Internet as we know it,” Kaplan said in a statement.

“MoveOn members strongly support an open and fair Internet that is treated as the public utility that it is and will make their voices known during the comment period, calling on the FCC to reject the proposed rules that would undermine an open Internet – and on President Obama to publicly oppose this plan,” she said.

“Save the Internet” is a call to action supported by numerous news media and other organizations. 

Wheeler has been under growing pressure to embrace rules that would offer more support for “net neutrality.”

FCC proposal

The FCC released a two-page document outlining its proposal, adding that it was relying “on a legal blueprint set out by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in its January decision in Verizon v. FCC, using the FCC’s authority to promote broadband deployment to all Americans under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. At the same time, the Commission will seriously consider using its authority under the telecommunications regulation found in Title II of the Communications Act.”

Following are the proposed rules:

  • Retain the definitions and scope of the 2010 rules, which governed broadband Internet access service providers but not services like enterprise services, Internet traffic exchange and specialized services.
  • Enhance the existing transparency rule, which was upheld by the D.C. Circuit. The proposed enhancements would provide consumers, edge providers and the commission with tailored disclosures, including information on the nature of congestion that impacts consumers’ use of online services and timely notice of new practices.
  • As part of the revived “no-blocking” rule, ensure that all who use the Internet can enjoy robust, fast and dynamic Internet access.
  • Tentatively concludes that priority service offered exclusively by a broadband provider to an affiliate should be considered illegal until proven otherwise.
  • Asks how to devise a rigorous, multi-factor “screen” to analyze whether any conduct hurts consumers, competition, free expression and civic engagement and other criteria under a legal standard termed “commercial reasonableness.”
  • Asks a series of detailed questions about what legal authority provides the most effective means of keeping the Internet open: Section 706 or Title II.
  • Proposes a multi-faceted process to promptly resolve and head off disputes, including an ombudsman to act as a watchdog on behalf of consumers and start-ups and small businesses.

“The complete FCC letter can be read online.