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The FCC voted today to move forward with rules that would let internet service providers charge companies more for faster access to consumers. The Commission passed a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NRPM) in a 3-to-2 vote along party lines, and has now opened up the rules for public comment.

Under the proposed rules, companies like Comcast and Verizon would be able to charge Google, Microsoft and others for the ability to access customers more quickly.

The rules allow for the creation of “fast lanes” where certain content is delivered more quickly than others. In basic terms, that’s in contrast with the principles of Net Neutrality, which would treat all data the same. However, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stated emphatically that he doesn’t intend for these rules to degrade the quality of users’ Internet service.

“There is one Internet,” he said at today’s hearing. “Not a fast Internet, not a slow Internet; one Internet.”

Image by Leonardo Rizzi on Flickr
Image by Leonardo Rizzi on Flickr

To back that up, the proposed rules set out a standard of “commercial reasonableness” to govern broadband companies’ actions. If what they do doesn’t mesh with that standard, Wheeler said, the FCC would take action.

“If a network operator slowed the speed of service below that which the consumer bought, it would be commercially unreasonable and therefore prohibited,” Wheeler said. “If the network operator blocked access to lawful content, it would violate our no-blocking rule and therefore be doubly prohibited.”

The proposed rules call for a “multifaceted dispute resolution process” to deal with companies that don’t comply with those rules. However, it’s not yet clear how that process would work.

All of this had to take place after an appeals court struck down the Commission’s previous Net Neutrality rules, saying that the FCC had overstepped its bounds.

It’s the next step in what is sure to be a long and contentious process: last week, more than 100 tech companies, including Amazon and Microsoft, sent an open letter to the FCC asking the commission to classify broadband providers as common carriers — required to provide service without discrimination.

Wheeler said that today’s proposal is an invitation for people to debate and discuss what regulatory options are best for Net Neutrality moving forward. While today’s proposed rules wouldn’t reclassify broadband companies as common carriers, the NRPM does ask whether it would be better for the Commission to do so, or continue with regulations as they stand today.

Unsurprisingly, the rules set out today ran afoul of Net Neutrality advocates, who are frustrated with what the Commission put forth.

“The FCC’s proposal still falls well short of real net neutrality rules,” Public Knowledge Vice President Michael Weinberg said in a press release. “It would create a two-tier internet where ‘commercially reasonable’ discrimination is allowed on any connections that exceed an unknown ‘minimum level of access’ defined by the FCC. A two-tier internet is anathema to a truly open internet, and rules under section 706 authority are insufficient to prevent harmful paid prioritization.”

There will now be a 4-month-long public comment period when people can voice their concerns about the rules, and the FCC can amend the proposal.

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