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FCC says net neutrality is not dead amid pay-for-speed proposal

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to propose new guidelines on Internet traffic on Thursday that, when approved, would make way for broadband or Internet service providers (ISPs) to put charge or negotiate payments with content providers or companies such as Google, Amazon and Netflix wanting access to their fastest lanes for their consumers.

The new FCC proposal, developed by its chairman Tom Wheeler, is considered as the third attempt of the agency to enforce its "net neutrality" principle that makes Internet traffic equal for all. It is said to be a bid of the agency to stop ISPs such as Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications from slowing down or blocking individual Web sites provided to the consumers, and instead allow consumers to access any content they choose, not the content picked by the ISPs.

Yet there's another angle of the proposal that critics and activists start to worry about. It would also make way for ISPs to favor traffic from content providers with whom the former has reasonable commercial terms, which the FCC would decide on a case to case. If the content providers would agree to pay more for a better delivery of content to its consumers, it would also mean the consumers may have to deal with added weight on their payments.

"There are reports that the FCC is gutting the Open Internet rule. They are flat out wrong," Wheeler says in a statement. "As with the original Open Internet rules, and consistent with the court's decision, behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted."

Recall that net neutrality, or Open Internet, was a vital part of the 2008 campaign platform of President Barack Obama. FCC explains what an Open Internet is on its official website.

"The 'Open Internet' is the Internet as we know it, a level playing field where consumers can make their own choices about what applications and services to use, and where consumers are free to decide what content they want to access, create, or share with others," the agency writes.

The new proposal of FCC intends to seek a replacement of the rule of net neutrality or open Internet order rejected by a U.S. Court of Appeals in January. The court for the D.C. Circuit confirmed that FCC has the authority to come up with open-access guidelines, however, the agency failed to prove in court that its open Internet order didn't overstretch.

In a statement to Mashable, an unidentified FCC official clarifies that the new proposal would still come to terms with the goals of the open Internet order, yet a new standard would have to be established to assess "whether conduct threatens an open Internet." The new standard would replace the discriminating clause in the said order that forces ISPs to treat all Internet traffic equally. The agency would gather public comments that would create a "commercially reasonable standard" and manner for resolving disputes.

Advocates of net neutrality still believe that a system allowing for discrimination would be a disadvantage to Internet startups because of the possible preferential treatment of ISPs. Further, critics also say preventing net neutrality could bring about extensive consequences on the U.S. society such as widening the gap between poor and rich Internet users and hampering the rise of innovation. Other research reveals that the proposal would not disturb the Internet experience of user immediately, but it would on the long term and for an extra fee.

Critics such as Michael Weinberg, who is vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, says in an email statement to Bloomberg that the new proposal "is not net neutrality" but rather an invitation for ISPs "to pick winners and losers."

Another advocate, program director of Todd O'Boyle of the Common Cause's Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, also expresses that if this goes in effect, it will "represent Washington at its worst."

On March 20, Netflix likewise issued a statement on their stand on net neutrality.

"Without strong net neutrality, big ISPs can demand potentially escalating fees for the interconnection required to deliver high quality service. The big ISPs can make these demands -- driving up costs and prices for everyone else -- because of their market position," the company says in a blog post. Netflix also says that it will continue to fight for the Internet the world needs and deserves.

The draft proposal goes on circulation among Wheeler's fellow commissioners on Thursday. Voting will be done on May 15. The FCC will only write the final guidelines after a public consultation period, before final voting again.

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