Net neutrality advocates think they're pushing the Federal Communications Commission in the right direction after the commission voted on Thursday to kick off a long comment period on an open Internet plan. The goal of the plan is to provide a set of guidelines that would ensure that all Internet traffic would be treated equally, rather than allowing providers to favor traffic from one company over another. But advocates still don't know if they can get FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to go all the way toward establishing full net neutrality.
During the vote, Wheeler made unexpectedly explicit comments about the possibility of reclassifying broadband Internet as a utility, a step that the industry has long opposed because it would result in heavier regulation of broadband providers.
But the set of proposals that the FCC voted to move forward on Thursday still falls far short of adopting reclassification, and the 120-day comment period the commission enacted will likely spark another round of intense lobbying on the part of providers.
"[Wheeler]'s clearly hearing from the public. He got an earful today," said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the open Internet group Free Press. "I think there are some better questions in this order which open this order to doing the right thing -- a door which three weeks ago seemed like it was being shut."
The FCC has yet to release a written version of the outline for open Internet plans, but commissioners gave insights into the proposals in their comments during the vote.
All of the commissioners who spoke on Thursday noted the extensive public outcry sparked by an April Wall Street Journal story that reported Wheeler's open Internet plans would allow for so-called Internet "fast lanes" -- essentially allowing Internet service providers, such as Time Warner or Verizon, to favor Internet traffic from one company over another by charging for faster access to their customers.
Celebrities, members of Congress and even an Occupy Wall Street-style encampment outside the FCC responded promptly in protest. Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn noted that even her own mother had called her to express alarm about the "fast lane" reports -- the first time that had happened in many years.
"This proposal from the FCC proves that the public is having an impact. After extensive public outcry, the FCC is asking questions about the fundamental legitimacy of fast lanes and exploring the viability of [reclassification]," Michael Weinberg, the vice president of the non-profit group Public Knowledge, said in a statement.
"This will be the summer of net neutrality," he added.
Wheeler said Thursday that he was personally opposed to the idea of Internet "fast lanes" -- an apparent retreat from the April report that his proposal would allow them.
"The real call to action begins after this vote is taken," Clyburn said. "The eyes of the world are on all of us, use your voice and this platform to continue to be heard."
The long comment period will likely allow the commission some breathing room after the intense public response of the last few days. But it could also grant broadband lobbyists an upper hand, or allow advocates to continue to build momentum, if public support for net neutrality grows.
Some advocates had concerns that the FCC would use the comment period to simply let critics blow off steam. But given Wheeler's stronger-than-expected language about reclassification, a number now believe that the FCC will take public comments submitted during the period seriously, and perhaps take them into account in the shaping of the proposals.
"I might not have said that three weeks ago, but it's very clearly that they're getting the message that the public is upset," said Aaron, of Free Press.
Yet former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, now a special advisor to Common Cause, expressed dismay that the FCC did not adopt reclassification immediately.
“This is an alarming day for anyone who treasures a free and open Internet –- which should be all of us," Copps said in a statement. "The FCC could have moved decisively to guarantee that the Internet remains an open platform for free expression and the exchange of democracy-sustaining communications. Instead, the Commission again left broadband users without the protections they deserve."
But other advocates said they are looking forward to the future, with some hope.
"This is just the beginning. I never thought we could shift the Chairman before the vote," Marvin Ammori, an attorney and prominent net neutrality advocate, wrote in an email. "We have to advocate over the next 120 days, that has always been our strategy."
Timothy Stenovec contributed reporting.