Federal Communications Commission set to vote on Net neutrality

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler is going forward with a vote Thursday on rules to allow paid fast lanes for Web traffic as artists protest and corporate chieftains warn him against going too far.

What began as an inside Washington fight a decade ago over a nascent Internet has now become a populist issue around the U.S., attracting a street protest and resistance from Wheeler’s fellow Democrats, whose votes the chairman needs for a majority.

Wheeler’s plan either threatens the open Internet by omitting guarantees that traffic will be treated equally — a point made in a letter signed by artists such as punk rocker Jello Biafra — or threatens companies with micromanagement, including rate regulation, if the FCC chooses another path — a point raised by Comcast chief executive officer Brian Roberts.

“People are attached to this issue because they’re attached to what they can do on the Internet,” said Bartees Cox, a spokesman for the Washington-based policy group Public Knowledge, which opposes the proposal. “When you start telling citizens some things are going to be slowed down and there are slow and fast lanes — a lot of people aren’t OK with that.”

Wheeler last month proposed letting service providers such as AT&T and Comcast negotiate deals on a case-by-case basis with content makers such as Netflix and for preferential connections to consumers’ TVs and computers.

The FCC’s two Republican commissioners have expressed hostility to new open Internet rules, and congressional Republicans have warned Wheeler not to go too far. On the opposite side, Democratic senators are calling for “clear, strong protections” for an open Internet.

The last time the FCC decided Net neutrality rules, in 2010, it voted after a year of discussion that drew more than 114,000 comments from companies and individuals. Now, four months after a court threw out those rules, comments have already passed the 100,000 mark, according to a count by one agency member.

The preliminary vote at the FCC’s monthly meeting Thursday takes place against a background of dissent from Wheeler’s fellow Democrats. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has called for at least a month of delay, and Mignon Clyburn has blogged her disapproval of letting companies pay for priority passage.

Neither commissioner has publicly stated support for Wheeler’s proposal, creating problematic math, since the chairman needs each for a majority at the five-member agency.

If Wheeler prevails, the agency will take comments with the aim of holding a second vote and having rules in place by year’s end.