The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was expected this week to vote on a set of so-called "Net Neutrality" rules that some Democrats believed would fulfill a key Obama campaign promise to ensure all Internet traffic is treated equally.
Instead, rules authored by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski would allow for a greater fractioning of the Internet and data rationing on mobile and wired networks, according to analysis of the policies. Major network stakeholders like Verizon and AT&T would be able to sell bandwidth in capped tiers, with overage charges for users who download too much information, and certain types of data traffic like peer-to-peer file transfers could be banned altogether.
If they pass and telecoms are allowed to move forward with their plans, "the Internet as we know it would cease to exist," Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) concluded in an editorial published by Huffington Post.
"That's why Tuesday is such an important day," he continued. "The FCC will be meeting to discuss those regulations, and we must make sure that its members understand that allowing corporations to control the Internet is simply unacceptable."
Franken added that Genachowski "has been calling the CEOs of major Internet corporations seeking their public endorsement" of a bill that would actually "destroy" the principle of "Net Neutrality."
He also called "troubling" the fact that President Obama and Genachowski have campaigned "convincingly" for "Net Neutrality," yet now appear poised to deal its death blow.
"Imagine if Comcast customers couldn't watch Netflix, but were limited only to Comcast's Video On Demand service," Franken continued. "Imagine if a cable news network could get its website to load faster on your computer than your favorite local political blog. Imagine if big corporations with their own agenda could decide who wins or loses online. The Internet as we know it would cease to exist."
In a recent speech, Genachowski specified that the FCC's rules would permit ISPs to charge heavy bandwidth users even more, creating a tiered pricing structure. ISPs would also be able to charge fees to businesses serving large quantities of data.
The announcement was a victory for Comcast, the nation's largest cable Internet provider, which recently forced a bandwidth toll upon Netflix partner Level 3. The company called Comcast's move "extortion," but agreed to their conditions to prevent any service interruptions.
Comcast insisted the move had nothing to do with Net neutrality.
Tiered pricing structures are already in place for many communications providers like AT&T and Cricket, which offer wireless broadband services. Verizon said it would implement similar pricing structures in the coming months.
The FCC's rules would permit the practice on wired networks as well. Both Comcast and Time Warner, two of America's largest wired broadband providers, have already experimented with the practice.
On wired Internet, which is expected to dramatically decrease in relevance in the coming years as fourth-generation wireless networks proliferate, a "public Internet" would be protected from bandwidth throttling. Companies, however, would be permitted to experiment with establishing super-tiers for preferred traffic, but must justify why individual services should be separated from the public Internet.
The FCC would additionally require broadband providers to disclose their network management practices.
"That's why net neutrality is the most important free speech issue of our time," Sen. Franken concluded. "And that's why, this Tuesday, when the FCC meets to discuss this badly flawed proposal, I'll be watching. If they approve it as is, I'll be outraged. And you should be, too."