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Franken: Proposed net neutrality rules ‘deeply disappointing and very troubling’

WASHINGTON — FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal would reportedly allow “pay-for-play” agreements between Internet providers and content companies.

Federal Communications Commissioner Tom Wheeler is reportedly proposing a new rule that would allow companies to pay Internet service providers for access to quicker means of delivering their content to consumers online.
REUTERS/Gary Cameron

WASHINGTON — Sen. Al  Franken said Thursday that proposed federal rules loosening the Internet’s “net neutrality” regulations are “deeply disappointing and very troubling” and “would fundamentally change the open nature of the Internet.”

Federal Communications Commissioner Tom Wheeler is reportedly proposing a new rule that would allow companies to pay Internet service providers for access to quicker means of delivering their content to consumers online. The rule change, if it’s approved, would damage the concept of “net neutrality” — the idea that all content delivered online should be treated equally by Internet providers. Net neutrality holds that a company like Comcast, for example, shouldn’t be able to charge Netflix to stream video to consumers faster.

The rule change comes two months after a federal court ruled in January against a previous set of proposed government rules meant to stop such transactions and uphold net neutrality. Wheeler is now reportedly considering taking those rules off the books entirely.

Franken, who is one of Congress’s most vocal proponents of net neutrality, said the plan was “misguided.”

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“The notion that the FCC might create a fast lane for deep-pocketed companies is deeply disappointing and very troubling,” he said in a statement. “Chairman Wheeler’s proposal would fundamentally change the open nature of the Internet, and I strongly urge him to reconsider this misguided approach.”

Congress would face lobbying blitz if it stepped in

The FCC had proposed restricting these “pay-for-play” schemes in a package of rules as early as 2010, but Internet providers quickly challenged the rules in court.

In January, a federal court struck the regulations down, saying that since federal law doesn’t consider the Internet a public utility, like electricity, it can’t be regulated as such.

“When the FCC rules for net neutrality were struck down earlier this year, I urged Chairman Tom Wheeler to act swiftly to maintain the open nature of the Internet,” Franken’s statement said. “But it appears that the Chairman is proposing to move in the opposite direction.”

University of Minnesota law professor Bill McGeveran said Congress could defuse the court’s ruling by stepping in and writing the regulations itself, or giving the FCC more guidance on what those rules should look like. There’s very little political will to do so, though, and if lawmakers moved in that direction, McGeveran predicted Internet companies would launch a lobbying blitz against it.

“You’d have lobbying in every direction,” he said, “and that’s not usually a recipe for quick action.”

Even though pay-for-play deals would be allowed under the reported rules, McGeveran said it appears Wheeler may try preserving as much of the FCC’s 2010 principles as he can, such as preventing Internet companies from blocking websites or lowering delivery speeds for content providers who don’t pay a fee.

“I think the FCC is trying to write a rule that will focus its energy on who would be the worst offenders of net neutrality,” he said.

The Netflix-Comcast deal, he said, is a example of what could come if the rule sticks: companies will likely look to pay to use the fast line rather than stick to the slower options that remain.

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Higher prices for consumers

Of course, if companies are asked to pay a fee for quicker content delivery, that could eventually mean higher prices for consumers.

“Consumers are putting their head in the sand if they don’t think expenses are going to get passed along,” said Tom Salonek, the founder and CEO of Eagan-based Intertech.

Salonek wrote a Star Tribune op-ed about net neutrality on April 13 for the sake of raising public awareness about the issue, he said. If he has to, Salonek said his company, which makes software and provides software training, would pay a fee to access faster Internet delivery services.

But he said a pay-for-play system could hurt innovation if profitable companies are able to afford quicker Internet access that small start-ups can’t, even if they’re delivering an inferior product.

He said paying for better access wouldn’t threaten “groups that have been around and have cash-flow and money in the bank … It’s the guy working out of the back of his house trying to start something new, that’s the guy it’s going to have an impact on.”

The proposed rules are due to be publicly released next month, and could be approved later this year.