The Federal Communications Commission is taking the next step on a proposal that many say would render a truly open Internet obsolete. It concerns the creation of what's been hailed an "Internet fast lane," which would allow large companies like Google, Netflix, and others to pay Internet service providers extra for faster connectivity—just like a speeding car in the freeway toll lane.
The downside, critics argue, is that startups and smaller competitors would be at a severe disadvantage, since a company like Google could effectively leverage their superior, high-speed services to maintain their dominance. Opponents say that if such a precedent were established, it would effectively sound the death knell of net neutrality, or the idea that all traffic should be treated equally regardless of what kind of data it works with—streaming video, large files, etc.
On Thursday, however, the FCC voted 3-2 to move forward with a two-part proposal along those lines. The first option is more dramatic, and would basically reclassify broadband as a public utility like gas and electricity. Essentially, ISPs would face far stricter regulations under the watchful eye of the government. Web advocates would like to see this path become a reality.
Option two involves an amended proposal that was struck down by the courts in January, which would likely include provisions allowing for the establishment of fast lanes for whoever might want to pay for it. The catch would be that the FCC will be in a position to scrutinize each case, and although ISPs have have joined web giants in denouncing the precedent, critics are having a hard time believing them.
Now the proposal moves into a hearing period, which will likely take place late this year. Today was effectively a punt, in other words. Politicians, web advocates, companies like Google, and others will have the opportunity to argue in front of the FCC on which path—if any—should be taken. For now, at least, net neutrality lives to fight another day.