Last night, in the same venue that hosted this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, over 1,600 communications industry professionals — lobbyists, lawyers, regulators — gathered together for what insiders call the “Telecom Prom.” On stage, freshly appointed FCC Chair Tom Wheeler rattled off some jokes. “Understand the priorities of the new chair,” he teasingly suggested to lobbyists in the audience. “For example, if he’s a grandfather, don’t wait to ask him to pull out the pictures of the grandchildren.”
Wheeler put on a good show. But at some tables, the topic centered around another performance by the chairman, delivered a few days earlier at Ohio State University. During a Q&A session following the chairman’s first formal public address, he uttered a surprising line. Asked about tiered internet access and “data hogs,” he said the following:
"I think we’re also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say, ‘Well, I’ll pay in order to make sure that you might receive, my subscriber might receive, the best possible transmission of this movie.’ I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve."
To net-neutrality supporters, who want to prevent internet service providers from prioritizing, or charging for, different types of internet traffic, this was extremely alarming. Michael Weinberg, a vice president at pro-net-neutrality nonprofit Public Knowledge, sounded the alarm immediately. “This is, of course, exactly the type of market that net neutrality is designed to prevent,” he wrote the next day. “If Chairman Wheeler’s version of net neutrality is different from everyone else’s version of net neutrality, we need to know that sooner rather than later.”
A spokesperson for Free Press, another pro-net-neutrality group, told BuzzFeed, “We are concerned about the two-sided market,” and pointed us to a blog post on the organization’s site. “There was a lot to like” about the speech, the post says, but the answers given during the Q&A “were more than a little troubling.”
It continues: “Allowing ISPs to charge for prioritization would encourage artificial scarcity, depress competition, harm online innovation and threaten the very existence of the open Internet.”
Wheeler’s past as a cable and wireless industry lobbyist, as well as an enthusiastic response to his appointment from AT&T and Comcast, put internet watchdog groups on high alert all the way back in May. Wheeler has since tried to assuage worries, to little effect. In November, Fortune described Wheeler’s goals for net neutrality to be “anybody’s guess.”
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