WASHINGTON — Federal regulators appear to share one view about so-called net neutrality: It is a good thing.
But defining net neutrality? That is where things get messy.
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to open for public debate new rules meant to guarantee an open Internet. Before the plan becomes final, though, the chairman of the commission, Tom Wheeler, will need to convince his colleagues and an array of powerful lobbying groups that the plan follows the principle of net neutrality, the idea that all content running through the Internet’s pipes is treated equally.
While the rules are meant to prevent Internet providers from knowingly slowing data, they would allow content providers to pay for a guaranteed fast lane of service. Some opponents of the plan, those considered net neutrality purists, argue that allowing some content to be sent along a fast lane would essentially discriminate against other content.
“We are dedicated to protecting and preserving an open Internet,” Mr. Wheeler said immediately before the commission vote. “What we’re dealing with today is a proposal, not a final rule. We are asking for specific comment on different approaches to accomplish the same goal, an open Internet.”
That essentially means that as long as an Internet service provider like Comcast or Verizon does not slow the service that a consumer buys, the provider can give faster service to a company that pays to get its content to consumers unimpeded.
The three Democratic commissioners on the five-member panel, including Mr. Wheeler, voted in favor of opening the plan to public comment. The plan will be open for comment for four months, beginning immediately.
The two Republican members, who voted against the plan, said that it exceeded the agency’s legal authority, that there had been no evidence of actual harm or deviation from net neutrality principles and that elected members of Congress should decide the issue, not regulatory appointees.
The proposal also requests public comments on whether and by how much the commission should tighten regulation of Internet service providers. For example, the commission asks whether it should reclassify high-speed Internet service as a utility like application, subject to stricter regulatory controls than now apply, and if it should ban certain practices that might impede consumers from getting equal access to all legal online content through their chosen Internet service provider.
The public will have until July 15 to submit initial comments on the proposal to the commission, and until Sept. 10 to file comments replying to the initial discussions.
Even the Democratic commissioners were not unanimous in their reasons to issue the rules for public comment. Jessica Rosenworcel concurred in the decision after having called last week for the chairman to delay action.
“I support network neutrality,” Ms. Rosenworcel said. “But I believe the process that got us to this rule making today is flawed. I would have preferred a delay. I think we moved too fast, to be fair.”
Mignon Clyburn, who said the issue had provoked her mother to ask her for the first time about an F.C.C. proposal, said she, too, had misgivings. “Though I still may have preferred to make portions of the draft more neutral,” she said, “what we are voting on today asks about a number of alternatives, which will allow for a well-rounded record to develop, on how best to protect the public interest.”
Ajit Pai, the senior Republican on the commission, said all the members shared “some important common ground: namely, a bipartisan consensus in favor of a free and open Internet.”
But, he added, “a dispute this fundamental is not for us, five unelected individuals, to decide. Instead, it should be resolved by the people’s elected representatives, those who choose the direction of government, and those whom the American people can hold accountable for that choice.”
The fifth commissioner, Michael O’Rielly, was the most forceful in his dissent. “The premise for imposing net neutrality rules is fundamentally flawed and rests on a faulty foundation of make-believe statutory authority,” he said. “I have serious concerns that this ill-advised item will create damaging uncertainty and head the commission down a slippery slope of regulation.”
The proposed rules in some cases go beyond those that were included in the commission’s 2010 Open Internet Order, which was struck down this year by a federal appeals court.
Commission staff members explained that the proposal would make Internet service providers do a better job of telling consumers how they manage their traffic, a regulation that was upheld by the court. It would revive, under a new legal justification, the “no blocking” rule that was struck down by the court. And it would set a “commercially reasonable” standard to judge whether an Internet provider is discriminating against some content.
Certain forms of discrimination would be allowed. Mr. Wheeler cited 911 calls or transmission of real-time medical information as examples of applications that broadband providers could subject to preferential service.
The proposed rules would also include an enforcement mechanism and establish an ombudsman to help investigate complaints from the public and provide guidance about the commission’s processes.
True to form for an issue that has so inflamed public opinion, few of the parties most involved in the debate were satisfied with the commission’s approach. Verizon Communications, which brought the court challenge to the commission’s previous open Internet rules, issued a statement warning it against subjecting broadband to strict oversight.
“For the F.C.C. to impose 1930s utility regulation on the Internet would lead to years of legal and regulatory uncertainty and would jeopardize investment and innovation in broadband,” the company said.
Consumer advocates said the proposal did not go far enough.
“Today’s F.C.C. discussion about the rules included encouraging words about the need for an open Internet,” Consumers Union said in a statement. “But the agency’s plan still appears to go against the principles of ensuring one. The proposal could negatively impact consumer prices, choices and access to the Internet, as well as free speech and innovation.”