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FCC gets record number of net neutrality comments, what now?

FCC gets record number of net neutrality comments, what now?

The agency is now focused on analyzing the 3 million comments it has received

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission's deadline for the public to comment on the agency's proposed net neutrality rules passed Monday with more than 3 million comments filed, by far a record number for an FCC proceeding.

The 3 million comments, as of midday Monday, eclipsed the 1.4 million complaints the FCC received related to singer Janet Jackson's so-called "wardrobe malfunction" on live television during the 2004 Super Bowl. Many of the net neutrality comments called for the agency to pass strong net neutrality rules prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Internet traffic or charging Web content providers for priority access to broadband customers.

Many recent comments filed at the FCC used a form letter from a group of net neutrality advocates who engaged in a symbolic Internet slowdown last week.

"We are writing to urge you to implement strong and unambiguous net neutrality rules that protect the Internet from discrimination and other practices that will impede its ability to serve our democracy, empower consumers, and fuel economic growth," said the form letter from Battleforthenet.com. "Erecting toll booths or designating fast lanes on the information superhighway would stifle free speech, limit consumer choice, and thwart innovation."

Still, the call for strong net neutrality rules was not universal. Conservative group American Commitment collected more than 808,000 signatures on a petition calling on the FCC to oppose calls by several groups, including Free Press and Public Knowledge, to reclassify broadband as a regulated public utility, similar to common carrier rules on traditional telephone service.

American Commitment called on signers to tell the FCC "the American people won't stand for a federal takeover of the Internet."

With the FCC's comment deadline passed, the agency will now focus on reading and analyzing comments, said agency spokeswoman Kim Hart. The agency is pulling in employees from across the FCC to read comments and it will also use technology tools to analyze comments, she said.

The FCC will continue to accept comments after Monday and those will be made part of the record, but the agency's focus will be on analyzing the comments made before the deadline, Hart said.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who earlier this year proposed net neutrality rules that would allow broadband providers to engage in "commercially reasonable" traffic management, has said he has hoped to put new rules in place by the end of the year. Earlier this year, a U.S. appeals court threw out a large portion of the FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules, and Wheeler has said new rules are a priority for the agency.

However, the number of comments may slow the process and there's no set timeline for the FCC to act on net neutrality rules, Hart said.

Earlier this month, the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group, analyzed 800,000 early comments in the net neutrality proceeding and found less than 1 percent opposed to net neutrality rules.

More than 60 percent of those 800,000 comments were form letters written by organized campaigns, the foundation reported. About two-thirds of those first comments objected to paid prioritization of Internet traffic, which critics of Wheeler's proposal have said it would allow.

Two-thirds of those early comments asked the FCC to reclassify broadband providers as regulated common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, the foundation said.

Some highlights of recent comments filed with the FCC:

Internet giants speak

While Internet giants Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Amazon.com have been largely silent in the recent net neutrality debate, trade group the Internet Association, which counts all four companies as members, filed comments last week calling on the FCC to pass the same net neutrality rules for mobile broadband services as for wired broadband services. The FCC's 2010 rules included weaker rules for mobile broadband than for wired broadband.

The Internet Association also called on the FCC to keep Title II reclassification of broadband as an option. Broadband "providers press the commission into prematurely foreclosing its regulatory options in hopes of pushing the commission in to adopting narrow rules that may not fully protect consumers," the Internet Association wrote. "The commission should resist these arguments and leave all of its legal tools on the table."

AT&T proposes ban on paid prioritization

AT&T, while calling on the FCC to reject common carrier reclassification of broadband, also suggested the agency could ban paid prioritization business models by broadband providers. While several broadband providers have in the past talked about looking into paid prioritization, most now seem to be backing away from that option.

Wheeler's proposal to pass net neutrality rules is based on a section of the Telecom Act that allows the agency to encourage broadband deployment. Under that proposal, the FCC could conclude "that paid prioritization is a per se commercially unreasonable practice under the theory that it threatens the open Internet," AT&T wrote in comments. "User-directed prioritization, as distinct from paid prioritization arrangements, would remain permissible."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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