Should the feds regulate the Web? Let the debate begin


Plenty of people inside and outside the tech industry want the Internet to remain “neutral” — believing that content companies shouldn’t be allowed to get preferential treatment for a fee.

But a proposal for how to keep net neutrality intact may be controversial, too. Today, the head of the Federal Communications Commission said the government may need to bring regulation to Internet service providers in order to preserve a “free and open Internet.”

The FCC voted, 3-2, to explore new rules that would allow Internet provider firms such as Verizon and Comcast to sell faster delivery service — a sort of “fast-lane” — to content companies such as video sites.

But the FCC’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, at the same time called the idea of ending net neutrality “unacceptable” and said the FCC will take public comments over the next four months before adopting final rules.

Crucially, Wheeler raised the possibility that broadband Internet companies could be reclassified as public utilities, as a way to regulate them and prevent “fast-lanes.” In a news release, the FCC said it “will seriously consider using its authority under the telecommunications regulation found in Title II of the Communications Act.”

While ending the open Internet is unthinkable to many, bringing regulation could create its own challenges for the tech industry.

As Hiawatha Bray writes in today’s Globe, “similar oversight of the telephone industry led to decades of technological stagnation and artificially high prices.”

Update: Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts has called on the FCC to declare that broadband providers are public utilities. “Internet access today is like traditional phone service decades ago — we can’t live or work without it,” Markey said. “In order to preserve a truly open and free Internet, we must stop broadband behemoths from setting up fast and slow lanes and picking winners and losers.”

It’ll be interesting to see where tech executives and investors fall on the issue. Both segments have called on the FCC to take measures to preserve net neutrality. But it’s not obvious that federal regulation of the Web would be palatable to the tech industry, either.

Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
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