The top federal regulator who oversees rules that govern the Internet on Wednesday waded into the thorny issue of a service provider’s right to restrict content.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler called for new protections for certain Internet services in order to shield them from being overcharged by larger services that offer user access.
If developed, the new rules would target so-called “edge providers,” services such as Hulu and Netflix. Viewership of Netflix’s popular original series “House of Cards” has skyrocketed since episodes from the second season became available last week.
Wheeler’s action follows an announcement last week by cable and home Internet giant Comcast Corp. that it will buy Time Warner Cable. It comes at a time when the number of hours Americans spend streaming video is up 70 percent since 2010, and streaming-video revenues reached more than $5 billion in 2012.
Wheeler’s pursuit of new rules is in reaction to a decision last month by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to strike down a previous FCC attempt to regulate Internet service providers. In the case, Verizon v. FCC, the court did grant that the agency has the authority to dictate guidelines on Internet freedom, however.
Judge David Tatel said the Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave the FCC the authority to “enact measures encouraging the deployment of broadband infrastructure.”
In a statement Wednesday, Wheeler said the ruling was an invitation to propose rules “that will meet the court’s test for preventing improper blocking of and discrimination among Internet traffic, ensuring genuine transparency in how Internet service providers manage traffic and enhancing competition.”
Fair use of the Internet is central to the debate over “net neutrality,” a concept that users should have access to all the Web content they choose without the providers imposing limitations.
Not all members of the FCC appear to see eye to eye on the issue or to agree with Wheeler.
Likening the debate to the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day,” in which Bill Murray’s character experiences the same day over and over, Commissioner Ajit Pai said in a statement, “The Internet was free and open before the FCC adopted net neutrality rules. It remains free and open today. Net neutrality has always been a solution in search of a problem.”
Some hailed Wheeler’s efforts as a step in the right direction on Internet policy.
“It’s welcome news that the FCC won’t be sitting on its hands with regard to its obligations to keep the Internet open to creativity and entrepreneurship,” according to a statement from Casey Rae, the interim executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington for musicians.
But Craig Aaron, the president of Free Press, a national nonprofit group that pushes for changes in the media, said the FCC needed to act more decisively. He said the agency was “doing nothing at this point that would actually help Internet users when Internet service providers are blocking or slowing down online traffic.”