May 12, 2014 · 5 minutes

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is still trying to prove that he doesn't plan to axe-murder the free Internet. He has reportedly updated the draft version of his proposed net neutrality rules to make it clear that the agency will not allow companies like Comcast to create "fast lanes" through which data from one company is delivered faster than data sent from another company, assuming the difference is caused by money-grubbing deals.

Wheeler's decision to change the proposed rules follows months of worry about deals that threaten the free Internet without running afoul of the narrowly-defined net neutrality laws. Some 150 companies sent a letter to the FCC in protest of the rules; more than 50 venture capitalists did the same; 10 senators followed up with their own letter; and a few commissioners within the FCC have urged Wheeler to delay the vote on his proposed rules.

Changing the proposal just a few days before its scheduled vote shows that Wheeler is ready to admit when he is wrong. But it also shows that the FCC is rushing to create new rules that will determine the future of the Internet as we know it. These rules shouldn't be rushed, pushed through despite their flaws, or changed at the eleventh hour to fix an obvious mistake. The future of entrepreneurship, entertainment, and communication is at stake -- it's worth carefully considering the rules' ramifications before they become law.

Reactions from around the Web

The Wall Street Journal notes that Wheeler's rules are criticized inside the FCC:

Mr. Wheeler's insistence that his strategy would preserve an open Internet, without previously offering much insight into how, has been a source of disquiet within his agency. Of the five-member commission, both Republicans are against any form of net neutrality rules, which they view as unnecessary. Commission observers will be watching the reaction of the two Democrats, Ms. Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, to Mr. Wheeler's new language.
The Washington Post points out that they've been heavily criticized outside the FCC, too:
Law professors and consumer groups doubt the FCC can judge if an ISP is unfairly discriminating against Web content firms on the "case-by-case basis" Wheeler has promised. He alarmed high-tech firms including Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Amazon and more than a hundred small Web firms that signed onto a letter last week telling the chairman that by allowing ISPs to charge for better delivery of traffic, he would essentially create a bifurcated Internet with fast lanes for the highest bidders and slow lanes for nonprofits and small startups.
The Verge meets news of Wheeler's updated draft with both optimism and pessimism:
The fact Wheeler is willing to change his mind in the face of overwhelming public comment is good for supporters of net neutrality, but even inside the FCC, opinion is reportedly split on the approach to take. One FCC official reportedly described the situation as "a debacle," saying "we may not agree on the course, but we agree the road we're on is to disaster." Certainly, if the proposal isn't altered sufficiently ahead of its official review this coming Thursday, the open internet as we know it could be destroyed.
Pando weighs in

On the Netflix-Comcast deal’s effect on smaller services:

The Internet has historically been a place where anyone could post content or offer services to the same global audience, regardless of whether you’re a kid from Arkansas or a multi-national corporation. But it’s becoming more like cable TV where content providers have to bring loads to cash to the table before companies like Time Warner and Cablevision will bring that content to millions of eyeballs.

That could leave small-time players like [VoteRockIt founder Matt] Hudson stuck on the Internet equivalent of grainy, limited-audience public access TV. On the FCC’s unwillingness to defend the free Internet:

Splitting issues that could affect the foundation of the Internet and allowing companies like Comcast to hamstring the greatest technological innovation in human history — or at least the innovation just behind man-made fire and wine — because the FCC wants to focus on semantics is insane. The Internet isn’t just the series of tubes connecting Comcast’s infrastructure to our homes: it’s the whole damned thing, from the servers operated by companies like Netflix all the way down to the cables in our homes.

Comcast might not be violating net neutrality laws, but it’s certainly violating the spirit behind them. It’s about time the FCC did something about that. On the European Union’s attempts to defend the free Internet:

The legislation is meant to provide access to online services ‘without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of the sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application.’ For example, ISPs would be barred from slowing down or ‘throttling’ the speed at which one service’s videos are delivered while allowing other services to stream at normal rates. To bastardize Gertrude Stein: a byte is a byte is a byte.

Such restrictions would prevent deals like the one Comcast recently made with Netflix, which will allow the service’s videos to reach consumers faster than before. Comcast is also said to be in talks with Apple for a deal that would allow videos from its new streaming video service to reach consumers faster than videos from competitors. The Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality laws don’t apply to those deals, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, so they are allowed to continue despite the threat they pose to the free Internet. On FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s promises to defend the free Internet:

The agency is still ignoring the peering and interconnection agreements that allow companies like Comcast to charge both companies and consumers for access to its network. It’s still manned by people who fought the principles it’s now trying to defend. And it’s still the same agency whose own incompetence threatened the Internet in the first place.

So how about it: do you trust an axe-murderer willing to slaughter the free Internet in broad daylight, or do you think the FCC will do what it’s supposed to and defend the free Internet? Remember that axes leave scars, and that idealism is rarely enough to keep death at bay. On the futility of arguing about what net neutrality really means:

The terms we use to describe these issues directly affect our ability to defend the free Internet. If more people explored the ways that deals like the one between Netflix and Comcast threaten consumers instead of pointing out that they don’t technically violate net neutrality rules, we might start a conversation that the millions of people affected by these deals can understand. If the FCC can change its laws to use the right words, it might be able to protect the Internet.

But if we continue to argue about the meaning of net neutrality to defend the actions of companies threatening the very idea of the free Internet, all we’ve done is split hairs while the Internet collapsed around us. This is a time for action, not a time for pedantic arguments about ultimately meaningless terms.