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The future direction of the Internet is up in the air after US telecommunications regulators on Thursday formally proposed new “net neutrality” rules that may create fast and slow lanes, allowing Internet service providers to charge companies like Netflix premium access fees.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler has come under fire overnight from consumer advocates and technology companies, as well as users across the Internet, for proposing to allow some “commercially reasonable” deals in which content companies could pay broadband providers to prioritise traffic on their networks.

Reuters reported Wheeler’s two fellow Democrats at the FCC concurred with him for a 3-2 vote to advance the proposal and begin formally collecting public comment, marking what some are describing as the "first nail in the coffin" for net neutrality.

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication, and the proposed changes would mean the US would effectively kill off the concept.

Critics of the changes are concerned rules would create fast and slow lanes for different companies depending on how much they can afford.

The FCC voted in favour of the proposal, but its Chairman Wheeler pledged to use all of his powers to prevent "acts to divide the Internet between 'haves' and 'have nots.'"

"I will not allow the national asset of an open Internet to be compromised," Wheeler said. "The prospect of a gatekeeper choosing winners and losers on the Internet is unacceptable."

Other commissioners also had misgivings about the process.

“I believe the process that got us to this rulemaking today is flawed. I would have preferred a delay. I think we moved too fast to be fair,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

“The real call to action begins after the vote today,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. “This is your opportunity to formally make your points on the record. You have the ear of the entire FCC. The eyes of the world are on all of us.”

The FCC’s proposal tentatively concludes that some pay-for-priority deals may be allowed, but asks whether “some or all” such deals should be banned and how to ensure paid prioritization does not relegate any traffic to “slow lanes.”

“This is an alarming day for anyone who treasures a free and open Internet—which should be all of us,” said Michael Copps, special advisor to Common Cause's Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, in an email.

“Let's be clear. Any proposal to allow fast lanes for the few is emphatically not net neutrality," Copps added. "The clear common-sense prerequisite for an Open Internet is Title II reclassification, guaranteeing the agency's authority to protect consumers and ensure free speech online.”

US-based Internet Service Providers like Comcast and Verizon want to charge services like Netflix an additional toll, but users are concerned this will lead to cable-TV style Internet packages, like the mock image below.

“I will not allow the national asset of an open Internet to be compromised. I understand this issue in my bones,” said Wheeler, formerly a private equity investor and cable industry lobbyist.

“Simply put, when a consumer buys a specified bandwidth, it is commercially unreasonable and thus a violation of this proposal to deny them the full connectivity and the full benefits that connection enables.”

The proposal seeks comment on whether the FCC should ban pay-for-priority business models. Reuters also reported that during Thursday's hearing, Wheeler emphasized that he would consider any broadband provider's efforts to throttle traffic to customers to be an unreasonable and prohibited practice.

"There is one Internet," he said. "It must be fast, it must be robust and it must be open. The speed and quality of the connection a consumer purchases must be unaffected by what content he or she is using."

It's "unacceptable" for broadband providers to be gatekeepers of Web content, he added.

More than 100 activists protested at the FCC, with signs reading “Liberate the Internet” and “Keep the Internet Free.”  Consumer advocates have argued for the FCC to reclassify Internet providers as utilities, like telephone companies, rather than as the less-regulated information services they are now. Republicans and broadband companies oppose that position.

Numerous technology companies, including Google, Reddit and Facebook, have spoken also out against allowing pay-for-priority.

The public will have until 15 July o submit initial comments on the proposal to the commission, and until 10 Sepember to file comments replying to the initial discussions.

For more information see this Reddit blog post: 'Only YOU can save Net Neutrality.'

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David Swan

David Swan is a tech journalist from Melbourne and is iTWire's Associate Editor. Having started off as a games reviewer at the age of 14, he now has a degree in Journalism from RMIT (with Honours) and owns basically every gadget under the sun. He also writes for Junkee and Fasterlouder. You can email him at david.swan@itwire.com or follow him at twitter.com/mrdavidswan

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