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The New FCC Chairman Is Cool with Pay-to-Play Internet

And he's the guy who most likely will soon be in charge of rewriting the rules of net neutrality.
December 4, 2013, 8:30pm

A satirical visualization of a cable package-style internet, via reddit

Anyone that likes the internet the way it is should probably care who Tom Wheeler is. He's the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and in all likelihood will be the guy chiefly responsible for rewriting the rules of net neutrality.

That could happen quite soon. A federal court ruling is due this month that’s expected to strike down the current law keeping the internet a level playing field for everyone. If and when that happens, it's up to the FCC to either appeal the decision or begin drawing up new regulations. Which is why advocacy groups are picking apart Wheeler's remarks from his first public speech as chairman this week, during which he expressed support for what is essentially the opposite of net neutrality.

Wheeler said he'd be cool with usage-based pricing, which means internet service providers would be free to charge websites based on bandwidth. That would impact video streaming first and foremost, and while popular sites like Netflix or Hulu may pony up for the internet fast-lane, the “little guy” that couldn't afford the higher toll wouldn't stand a chance competing against the big players. And then we start to lose innovation and the democratic principle the web was founded on.

“I think we’re also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say ‘well, I’ll pay in order to make sure that you might receive, my subscriber might receive, the best possible transmission of this movie.’ I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve,” Wheeler said Monday at Ohio State University.

"We’re seeing the market evolve in such a way that there will be variations in pricing. There will be variations in service," he continued. "We want to observe what happens from that, and we want to make decisions accordingly, but I go back to the fact that the marketplace is where these decisions ought to be made, and the functionality of a competitive marketplace dictates the degree of regulation."

If you read that and heard blah blah market blah blah who cares, the gist is this: Wheeler is trying to balance the “open market” that’s at the heart of Verizon’s legal case against net neutrality with the public’s right to a free and neutral web. But the kind of tiered pricing he’s referencing would lead the way for internet bills to start looking more like cable bills, which would be the worst.

Right now, anyone with a blog or website can reach the customers of, say, Time Warner's broadband internet, for free. Likewise, service providers can carry any web content for free. Net neutrality hooks up users and content directly, with very little interference from the middle man ISP (at least in countries where the web isn't censored).

Once you allow internet providers to charge different websites different prices, you're handing them the power to theoretically start doling out the internet according to their whim or own best interests. ISPs, many of whom are cable companies, could wind up charging tiered subscription fees for cobbled-together groups of websites like a cable package.

No one wants that, which is why advocates will be watching closely to see where Wheeler comes down on net neutrality as the commission is forced to walk the fine line between an open market and the open web.