A federal proposal to let Internet providers charge Netflix, Google and other companies for faster connections to subscribers set off a firestorm among consumer advocates who say it may doom the open Internet.
Service providers such as AT&T Inc. and Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp. would be able to negotiate deals with content makers such as Netflix and Amazon for preferential connections to consumers' televisions and computers, according to a proposal being pitched by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.
"Netflix is not interested in a fast lane; we're interested in safeguarding an open Internet for our members," Christopher Libertelli, vice president of government affairs for the largest video-subscription service, said in a statement.
Wheeler defended the proposal in a blog post Thursday, saying it doesn't abandon the FCC's Internet fairness policy. Advocacy groups including Public Knowledge and Free Press that have supported rules to prevent Internet-service providers from unfairly blocking or slowing Web traffic - known as "net neutrality" - objected.
"Pay-for-priority schemes will be a disaster for startups, nonprofits and everyday Internet users who cannot afford these unnecessary tolls," Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, said in an e-mailed statement. He called the proposal "a convoluted path that won't protect Internet users."
The FCC has been seeking to replace a rule rejected in January by a U.S. court. The regulation required companies that provide businesses and consumers high-speed Internet service over wires, or broadband, to treat Web traffic equally and didn't let them charge for faster or more-reliable access.
Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who sits on the Commerce committee, said different speeds contradict the essence of the Internet and its level playing field.
"The Internet's rules of the road must not open up fast lanes to those who can pay, leaving others stuck in traffic," Markey said in an e-mailed statement.
The FCC will test any proposed deals for harm to competition and consumers, an FCC official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the proposal, said Thursday.
Wheeler said in his blog post that the proposal he's delivering to the agency will bar Internet-service providers such as AT&T and Verizon from blocking legal content. It also requires the companies to disclose their policies to subscribers and users and prevents them from acting "in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity."