New FCC rules would allow paid traffic prioritization

New rules being drafted by the FCC will reportedly allow ISPs to establish so-called Internet fast lanes that prioritize traffic for select services. ISPs would have to be transparent about how they treat traffic, the New York Times says, and fast lanes would need to be implemented "in a commercially reasonable manner."

Net neutrality proponents oppose allowing broadband providers to give preferential treatment to certain kinds of traffic. There are numerous arguments against the practice, and as it turns out, many of them have been made by the FCC itself. Ars Technica illustrates how the government agency's Open Internet Order from 2010 seems to directly contradict the rules being proposed. That document warns that permitting traffic prioritization could give ISPs "incentives to allow congestion." It also claims the tolls on higher-speed lanes could stifle innovation by making it more difficult for smaller players to compete with larger companies. Because ISPs often have cable TV businesses to protect, it asserts that they have incentives to inflate the cost of streaming streaming services that compete with traditional television content.

In blog post published yesterday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler defended the new rules. He insists there will be a "high bar" for what is considered "commercially reasonable." ISPs will be forbidden from blocking legal content outright, and they "may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity." Favoring affiliate traffic would presumably be allowed when it's deemed to be commercially reasonable.

Wheeler reiterates that ISPs will have to be transparent about their practices. If customers don't like a provider's policies, they're free to take their business elsewhere. The broadband scene isn't exactly teeming with competition, though. There are few alternatives to the handful of giant corporations dominating the market, and consumer choice is limited as a result.

The proposed rules aren't official yet. They'll be published on May 15, and the FCC will accept input from the public after that.

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