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FCC moves forward with new rules on net neutrality

May 15, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
Putting the widely cherished principle of net neutrality at stake, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3 to 2 to allow broadband providers to charge for faster access in how online content is prioritized and delivered. Gwen Ifill talks to Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post about the debate and protest swirling around the decision.
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GWEN IFILL: The Federal Communications Commission took a big step forward today toward changing the rules that govern an open Internet, at stake, a widely cherished principle called net neutrality.

The FCC voted 3-2 to allow providers to charge for faster access in how content is prioritized and delivered. During a packed meeting interrupted at times by protesters, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the Internet could remain open as long as broadband providers do not offer access that is commercially unreasonable.

TOM WHEELER, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission: As I said, there is one Internet. It must be fast, it must be robust, and it must be open.

The speed and quality of the connection the consumer purchases must be unaffected by what content he or she is using. The prospect of a gatekeeper choosing winners and losers on the Internet is unacceptable.

GWEN IFILL: Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post was there today. And she’s back with us to help explain these changes the FCC has planned.

Welcome, Cecilia.

Explain the debate that was behind this 3-2 vote.

CECILIA KANG, The Washington Post: Well, the debate behind 3-2 vote is really what truly in the end will be best for consumers in terms what is the most open and neutral Internet, as you say.

Now, unpacking some of that jargon, two of the commissioners, the Democratic commissioners that ultimately voted in favor of the chairman’s proposal, they don’t like the idea of what could become fast lanes on the Internet.

And if I can back up a little bit, Gwen, the reason why is that consumers have taken for granted that any Internet content that they visit on the Web is delivered equally at the same speed, the speed that you pay your Internet service provider for.

What was approved today could change that structure, in that Internet service provides — that’s your telecom and cable company that provide the Internet into your home — can decide to charge Web sites for faster or premium delivery of content. And that means higher quality content.

GWEN IFILL: Well, explain this to me.

Two Republicans on the commission basically don’t think the Internet should be regulated at all. But why did these two Democrats who you say have these misgivings decide to support this?

CECILIA KANG: They decided to support this in the first step forward at least in answering or at least addressing questions and asking questions to the public about what is the best way to approach what’s known as net neutrality.

And, mind you, these rules also come with a basic provision that Internet service providers can’t outright block content on the Internet. So that, they support. What they don’t support is, again, this idea of paid prioritization or faster lanes on the Internet based on what companies pay the most for that.

So they said very carefully and very — in very uncertain terms that that portion of the rules, they don’t like. But they’re at least willing to move forward on asking those questions for the public to comment on for the next four months, actually.

GWEN IFILL: This has turned into quite a passionate debate for a communications regulation, people who have been camping out at the FCC, the tech companies vs. the telecoms.

How — what were the protesters protesting exactly in the room today?

CECILIA KANG: Right.

The protesters — and this is the most action I have ever seen at the Federal Communications Commission in terms of the public interest in this. And it really shows that Internet service has become a very mainstream issue, and this particular ruling has generated a lot of mainstream consumer interest.

And what they were saying is, they don’t like the idea, again, of fast lanes on the Internet. They want to keep the Internet as is, which is this neutral ground, where consumers get to pick what sites they want to see and the quality based on what they pay their Internet service provider, not based on the deals that are cut behind the scene between businesses that operate on the Web and the Internet service provides that provide the connections.

They also want the FCC to take — to really rethink and re-imagine their whole regulatory approach to broadband Internet, because high-speed Internet now has become in the minds of many people sort of a utility. And the FCC has kind of grappled with how are they going to pursue regulation of the new communications platform of this generation, when they don’t really have a regulatory structure in place to do that.

GWEN IFILL: The president, the White House put out a statement today saying they are for an open, fair and free Internet.

Everybody in this debate say they are for an open, fair and free Internet, but they don’t come down with — on the same side with how you get to that. There is a lot of lobbying going on. And I wonder, where is the administration in this?

CECILIA KANG: The administration has tried to keep an arm’s length from the FCC, in that the FCC is an independent agency.

They certainly are monitoring the action right now at the FCC and the plans moving forward. But they stress that it is an independent agency. But the chairman at the FCC is President Obama’s pick. And he is somebody who has — who came in, the chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, with the promise to carry out President Obama’s ambition to create net neutrality rules.

So there is this connection, a soft connection, if you will, between the administration and the Federal Communications Commission. But, definitely, Gwen, the devil is in the details. Everybody says they are for an open Internet. Who would say they’re not against that?

But, really, what that means in terms of what consumers will pay, what sites are going have the best access to consumers, what — whether startups will have a harder time competing with the big giants in Silicon Valley because they can’t afford to pay Internet service providers in the way that maybe Facebook, Netflix and Google can, those are the real questions that will be asked at the FCC in the next several months.

And that is really what is at stake, really changing not only the economics, but the consumer experience on the Internet.

GWEN IFILL: You say there are going to be a few months of comments in which this is going to be open for everybody to weigh in. Does that — can that actually change the outcome?

CECILIA KANG: It certainly can.

After — after 60 days of comments, and then another 60 days of reply, there’s going to be a lot of consideration. And you’re going see sort of a filtering down of the ideas that are most popular and most concerning in these public comments.

And the FCC, because this is all public and all these filings are available for anyone to read on the FCC Web site, it will be hard for the FCC to ignore any glaring, common concerns across a lot of these comments that are expected to come in. So the FCC can rewrite, re-tweak this idea, especially on fast lanes.

But even if it does allow for fast lanes and promises, as the chairman said today, to make sure that consumers will be protected and any sort of paid priority will be commercially reasonable, another question really is whether the FCC has the ability to be a good cop of these things, that it has the resources, if it can detect if there are bad players and bad action on the Internet on the behalf of the Internet service providers.

So these are larger questions about, again, the role of the FCC in this new Internet economy, when it really doesn’t have a lot of authority and hasn’t had a big history in regulating the Internet so far.

GWEN IFILL: So many questions still to be resolved in the next several months.

Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post, thank you for being our guide.

CECILIA KANG: Thank you.