Reported net neutrality changes roil consumer advocates, send Wheeler into defensive mode

The FCC could be about to add a toll lane to the information superhighway for those willing to pay a fee to cut through the traffic.

Multiple reports, started by a piece in the Wall Street Journal, indicate that the feds are hammering out the details of new rules that would let companies with the resources to do so pay ISPs a little--or a lot--extra to go faster on unclogged broadband networks.

Consumer advocates were not thrilled by the news.

"With this proposal the FCC is aiding and abetting the largest ISPs in their efforts to destroy the open Internet," Free Press President Craig Aaron said in a Washington Post story.

"If the FCC embraces this reported reversal in its stance toward net neutrality barriers to innovation will rise, the marketplace of ideas on the Internet will be constrained and consumers will ultimately pay the price," ACLU policy advisor Gabe Rothman said in the same story.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler attempted to defuse the controversy by noting that "reports that the FCC is gutting the open Internet rule … are flat out wrong. There is no 'turnaround' in policy."

What there is, exactly, was not immediately clear since a spokeswoman for Wheeler would not comment specifically on the plan to the Post, saying only that it is "consistent with the framework laid out in February" when an appeals court overturned FCC rules intended to guarantee a free and open Internet.

An FCC official speaking off the record to the Post said the proposal would require broadband providers to offer "a baseline level of service to their subscribers" but would also allow them to enter individual negotiations with content providers … in a commercially reasonable manner subject to review on a case-by-case basis."

That didn't assuage the fears of net neutrality advocates like Todd O'Boyle, program director of Common Cause's Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, who told The New York Times that the proposal, if it goes through, represents "Washington at its worst. Americans were promised, and deserve, an Internet that is free of toll roads, fast lanes and censorship--corporate or governmental."

The changes come at the same time that Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) proposed $45.2 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) is drawing fire for creating a company with too much power in both broadband and content. That deal would be impacted by a portion of the rules that would require ISPs to disclose whether they have favored affiliated content companies.

For more:
- The Wall Street Journal has this story (sub. req.)
- The Washington Post has this story
- The New York Times has this story
- GigaOM has this commentary
- FCC has this blog post

Related articles:
Netflix opposes Comcast-TWC merger, raises subscription by up to $2 in some markets
Franken asks Netflix's Hastings to share views on Comcast-TWC acquisition
Senators grill Comcast, TWC execs on $45B merger plans
Wheeler takes 'prism' view on net neutrality, retrans, process reform
Netflix call for net neutrality expansion rejected by FCC

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