A U.S. proposal to let Internet providers charge Netflix, Google and other companies for faster connections to subscribers set off a firestorm among consumer advocates who say it may doom the open Internet.
Service providers such as AT&T and Comcast would be able to negotiate deals with content makers such as Netflix and Amazon.com for preferential connections to consumers' televisions and computers, according to a proposal being pitched by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.
"Netflix is not interested in a fast lane; we're interested in safeguarding an open Internet for our members," Christopher Libertelli, vice president of government affairs for the largest video-subscription service, said in a statement.
Wheeler defended the proposal in a blog post Thursday, saying it doesn't abandon the FCC's Internet fairness policy. Advocacy groups including Public Knowledge and Free Press that have supported rules to prevent Internet-service providers from unfairly blocking or slowing Web traffic -- known as "net neutrality" -- objected.
"Pay-for-priority schemes will be a disaster for startups, nonprofits and everyday Internet users who cannot afford these unnecessary tolls," Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, said in an e-mailed statement. He called the proposal "a convoluted path that won't protect Internet users."
The FCC has been seeking to replace a rule rejected in January by a U.S. court. The regulation required companies that provide businesses and consumers high-speed Internet service over wires, or broadband, to treat Web traffic equally and didn't let them charge for faster or more-reliable access.
As it passed the now-voided rule in 2010 on a party-line vote, the FCC said pay-for-priority arrangements that favor some traffic "could cause great harm to innovation and investment" on the Internet.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, who sits on the Commerce committee, said different speeds contradict the essence of the Internet and its level playing field.
"The Internet's rules of the road must not open up fast lanes to those who can pay, leaving others stuck in traffic," Markey said in an e-mailed statement.
Wheeler said he will send the proposal to the five-member agency today, push for a preliminary vote next month, and wants to have a rule in place by the end of the year.
The FCC will test any proposed deals for harm to competition and consumers, an FCC official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the proposal, told reporters on a conference call Thursday.
Wheeler said in his blog post that the proposal he's delivering to the agency will bar Internet-service providers such as AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. from blocking legal content. It also requires the companies to disclose their policies to subscribers and users and prevents them from acting "in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity."
Companies pushing for open-Internet protections have included largest search-engine provider Google, largest Internet retailer Amazon and biggest online-subscription video provider Netflix. They are part of the Internet Association, which in an April 3 filing told the FCC the agency should adopt enforceable rules so their services won't be unfairly blocked, "explicitly or implicitly."
Michael Weinberg, vice president of the policy group Public Knowledge, said Wheeler's proposal "is not net neutrality." The FCC is inviting service providers "to pick winners and losers," Weinberg said in an emailed statement.
Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement the proposal is "a huge step backwards and must be stopped."
"If the Commission subverts the Open Internet by creating a fast lane for the 1 percent and slow lanes for the 99 percent, it would be an insult to both citizens and to the promise of the Net," said Copps, who now serves as a special adviser to Common Cause's Media and Democracy Reform Initiative.
"Absent net neutrality, the Internet could turn into a high-priced private toll road that would be inaccessible to the next generation of visionaries," Gene Sperling, then-director of the National Economic Council, and Todd Park, U.S. chief technology officer, said in a Feb. 18 blog post.