Deluged with comments, U.S. FCC to continue 'net neutrality' outreach

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 15, 2014 2:03 PM

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. regulators on Monday will formally stop accepting public comments on proposed new Internet traffic, or "net neutrality," rules but will continue reaching out to Americans as they review the controversial regulations.

Monday is the deadline for submitting comments to the Federal Communications Commission on so-called Open Internet rules that regulate how Internet service providers (ISPs) manage traffic on their networks.

A record 1.5 million comments have already flooded the agency since Chairman Tom Wheeler revealed his proposal in April. Consumer advocacy groups pounced on proposed rules they saw as creating fast and slow "lanes" on the web.

Under the proposed rules, ISPs such as Comcast Corp would be prohibited from blocking users' access to websites or applications but could charge content companies, such as Netflix Inc, to ensure quick and reliable delivery of their traffic to users, as long as such deals are deemed "commercially reasonable."

The FCC plans several workshops in coming weeks on technological, economic and legal aspects of the rules, which will be open to the public in Washington and will be streamed live online. People can submit comments to FCC staff by email and on Twitter.

The first two workshops on Tuesday will focus on policy approaches to the rules and how mobile broadband should be treated.

No formal deadline exists for the FCC to set new rules, which require a majority vote at the five-member FCC for approval. The workshops are planned through early October, so the vote is unlikely before November.

Wheeler has said he wanted to set new rules as quickly as possible, given the void created by a federal court's rejection in January of the FCC's earlier version. That means he could present a new draft of the rules before the end of the year.

Responding to calls for action from advocacy groups and a segment by comedian John Oliver on his HBO show, Americans overwhelmed the FCC with comments through online automated submission forms, email and mail.

The net neutrality submissions smashed the FCC's previous record of 1.4 million comments submitted about singer Janet Jackson's accidental breast exposure during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004. They also trumped more than 1 million comments the U.S. State Department last year said it had received on its environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The outcry on net neutrality, triggered in part by what insiders said was a leak of the unfinished proposal, has prompted Wheeler to alter the plan to ask whether "some or all" pay-for-priority deals should be banned and whether ISPs should be entirely reclassified to face regulations more like public utilities, an approach backed by advocacy groups.

Wheeler has repeatedly reassured the public of his intent to police any discrimination, which ISPs say would not be in their business interest anyway. FCC staff have also held several online question-and-answer sessions and are likely to do others.

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner and Emily Stephenson, editing by Ros Krasny)