The FCC delivers an Internet declaration of independence

Lori Erlendsson attends a pro-net neutrality Internet activist rally in Los Angeles.

Whether it is a declaration of independence or a bill or rights for the Internet, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler made his position clear when he announced his net neutrality plan this week: Everything on the Internet must be treated equally.

Wheeler wants to classify the net as a public utility. That move would invoke "the common carrier principle," which means no company could pay to prioritze or otherwise manipulate Internet access or traffic.

Even as it declares Internet freedom, the plan would also give the FCC unprecedented authority over the Net — and opponents say innovation and investment will suffer as a result.

“As a society, we have to figure out how we regulate this media — what’s the social contract and the role of the FCC in their regulatory oversight?” says Victor Pickard of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Pickard, who wrote America's Battle for Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform, says the FCC was very aggressive in the 1940s and took a hardline anti-monopoly approach.

“With Tom Wheeler, I don’t think that was his initial instinct,” says Pickard. “But he was pushed by public pressures to essentially do a very similar, New Deal-like measure against Internet monopolies.”

Wheeler has a good reason to push back against the business community, which wants the Internet to become a commodity that can be bought and sold.

“From society’s perspective, democracy depends on this,” says Pickard. “We have to take that into consideration as we devise policy for it.”

Wheeler’s plan isn’t a final solution. A number of challenges lie ahead for both regulators and the American public, according to Pickard. 

“We already know that the Republican-led Congress is seeking to undercut the FCC’s regulatory authority. There’s already been public announcements that AT&T will take this to court."

And, Pickard says, even if the rules hold for now, "there will be continued scrutiny as to whether there are any loop-holes in these net neutrality protections. And finally, the concern is that on February 26th, the public may declare victory and then tune out.”

Pickard believes citizens have to stay engaged or politics and business-as-usual could roll back protections.  

“Media policy isn’t the sexiest issue,” he says. Still, he notes that nearly 4 million people wrote into the FCC in response to the open Internet rules.

That public outcry, says Correspondent Todd Zwillich of PRI's TheTakeaway, was heard by Republicans on Capitol Hill. They don’t want the FCC completely out of the picture," he says. "They just don’t want what they’re calling a ‘power grab’ by an agency that they say is using antiquated rules and regulations that apply to the big phone companies of yesteryear."

GOP lawmakers, he says, are mulling over proposals that would address the public outcry over paid manipulation of Internet service, without giving the FCC the same type of broad authority over the Internet that it now wields over the big telecom companies.

“[Republicans] are effectively saying that they can outlaw pay-to-play and they can outlaw Internet fast lanes — and kind of leave it there,” Zwillich says. 

Democrats, he says, are "absolutely gleeful" about the FCC plan. "They’ve been leaning on the FCC to go big here since 2010, when the courts threw out the FCC’s original efforts to regulate this stuff.” 

This story is based on interviews that first aired on PRI's The Takeaway, a daily news show about the American conversation. Listen to the audio above to hear more on Democratic and Republican lawmakers reactions to FCC Chairman Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal.

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