Mozilla Has a Plan to Save Net Neutrality

The Firefox-maker pitches a new idea to prevent Internet “fast lanes.”

National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
May 5, 2014, 11:09 a.m.

Moz­illa is ur­ging the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion to en­act new rules to bar In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders from char­ging web­sites for faster ser­vice.

In a fil­ing with the FCC on Monday, the non­profit found­a­tion that makes the Fire­fox Web browser out­lined a new leg­al path to en­act tough net­work-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions.

Chris Ri­ley, a seni­or policy en­gin­eer for Moz­illa, said the group’s pro­pos­al is “groun­ded in a mod­ern un­der­stand­ing of tech­no­logy and mar­kets” and would “help en­sure that the In­ter­net con­tin­ues to be an in­nov­at­ive and open plat­form.”

The fil­ing in­tro­duces a new angle to the de­bate over reg­u­la­tion of In­ter­net ac­cess, but it’s un­clear how in­ter­ested the FCC will be in Moz­illa’s pro­pos­al.

In Janu­ary, the D.C. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals struck down the FCC’s old neut­ral­ity rules. FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er wants to re­work the rules in a way that can sur­vive fu­ture court chal­lenges.

His pro­pos­al would bar In­ter­net pro­viders from block­ing any web­sites but (un­like the old rules) would al­low them to charge for spe­cial “fast lanes” in at least some cases. The FCC is set to vote on wheth­er to move ahead with Wheel­er’s pro­pos­al on May 15.

Lib­er­als are out­raged that the FCC would al­low In­ter­net fast lanes, say­ing it would al­low ISPs to pick win­ners and losers and would tilt the In­ter­net in fa­vor of the largest cor­por­a­tions.

Con­sumer ad­vocacy groups are ur­ging the FCC to re­clas­si­fy broad­band In­ter­net ser­vice as a Title II “tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice” — a move that would dra­mat­ic­ally ex­pand the FCC’s leg­al au­thor­ity and al­low it to re­in­state strong rules that ban fast lanes. But re­clas­si­fy­ing the In­ter­net un­der Title II of the Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act would prompt a massive back­lash from Re­pub­lic­ans and busi­ness groups, who warn the FCC would be grant­ing it­self new un­checked reg­u­lat­ory powers and would risk stifling the growth of broad­band net­works.

In its fil­ing Monday, Moz­illa pro­posed a third op­tion. The FCC should use the Title II op­tion — but only for the re­la­tion­ship between web­sites and ISPs, not the re­la­tion­ship between con­sumers and ISPs, the group said.

The pro­pos­al would al­low the FCC to bar ISPs from char­ging web­sites for fast lanes while still us­ing the cur­rent light reg­u­lat­ory re­gime for oth­er In­ter­net is­sues that af­fect con­sumers, the group said.

Moz­illa ar­gued that its pro­pos­al is not “re­clas­si­fic­a­tion” be­cause the FCC has nev­er ex­pli­citly defined the re­la­tion­ship between ISPs and Web com­pan­ies.

“With our pro­pos­al, the FCC would be able to shift its at­ten­tion away from au­thor­ity ques­tions once and for all, and fo­cus in­stead on ad­opt­ing clear rules pro­hib­it­ing block­ing and dis­crim­in­a­tion on­line,” Ri­ley wrote in a Moz­illa blog post.

Har­old Feld, a seni­or vice pres­id­ent for the con­sumer group Pub­lic Know­ledge, ap­plauded the pro­pos­al, which he said is a “nov­el idea” for sav­ing net neut­ral­ity.

He said the fil­ing is sig­ni­fic­ant not only be­cause of the sub­stance of the pro­pos­al but also be­cause of who is mak­ing it. The cable in­dustry has been warn­ing against tough reg­u­la­tion, but Moz­illa’s fil­ing shows that power­ful busi­ness in­terests are on the side of net neut­ral­ity, Feld said.

“This cre­ates a new con­stitu­ency that says Title II is not a ‘nuc­le­ar op­tion.’ Title II is a tech­nic­al thing that you’ve got to do,” Feld said.

But Moz­illa’s pro­pos­al may not be much more polit­ic­ally vi­able than the full-scale Title II op­tion.

Ber­in Szoka, pres­id­ent of the liber­tari­an group Tech­Free­dom, said the “prac­tic­al ef­fect of their pro­pos­al would be al­most ex­actly the same as re­clas­si­fic­a­tion of broad­band gen­er­ally.” He said that the idea looks easy on pa­per but that in prac­tice it would be “messy, slow, and un­pre­dict­able.”

“Open­ing the door to Title II at all would still cre­ate sig­ni­fic­ant reg­u­lat­ory un­cer­tainty that would harm broad­band in­vest­ment, and thus make con­sumers worse off,” Szoka claimed.

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