At one end of the spectrum, there is true Net neutrality through maximum regulation. The ISPs would be re-designated as "public utilities" or "common carriers" like the phone system. That would give the federal government the legal right to dictate service levels, prices -- everything. This is the option favored by many Silicon Valley companies, by entrepreneurs and by the general public, for the most part.
At the other end of the spectrum is zero Net neutrality and zero regulation. The ISPs can sell priority to the highest bidder and even provide exclusivity to sources of data -- for example, without regulation, Netflix could pay Comcast to stop delivering HBO Go programming over the "last mile." If HBO doesn't like it, they can pay up. This is the option favored by the companies Wheeler has spent his career working for.
Because the idea of total regulation -- the "public utility" option -- is so unacceptable to the powerful ISP industry and also to many conservative Republicans, the FCC has avoided proposals that would institute this status or label for ISPs. Instead, we have a de facto Net neutrality situation without that designation.
Net neutrality is very hard to kill in the U.S. It has been a fundamental principle of the Internet since its inception and is backed by just about every major person and company involved in creating and building the Internet. No one has ever been able to figure out how to steal Net neutrality from the public.
Wheeler's indecent proposal
The FCC voted Thursday on Wheeler's new rules for Net neutrality. They approved the motion to allow the rules to go forward and to seek public comment on the question of making ISPs "common carriers."
Wheeler said his proposal doesn't allow for "paid prioritization" -- favored access for the companies that pay ISPs for faster and more reliable data connections -- but in fact it does, and that's one point left open for public comment. Under the proposal, ISPs are free to sell fast access for certain types of content, as long as they can show that it does no harm.
He claimed Net neutrality is preserved, and that consumers won't be harmed because he said the FCC won't allow ISPs to slow down users' connections beyond what they pay for.
He also couched his proposal in warm and fuzzy language, such as the following: "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."
Those are the right things to say because that's exactly what the public wants. But the whole proposal is in fact the opposite of that. It compromises the open Internet and grants gatekeepers status to ISPs which get to choose winners and losers on the Internet.
The "fast lane" prioritization that Wheeler wants to allow for the first time, clearly favors large companies over small ones, rich organizations over poor ones and existing companies over startups.
The truth is that "fast lane" prioritization directly benefits only high-bandwidth data sources like Netflix, YouTube and their ilk. That's today. In the future, we don't know what high-bandwidth, real-time applications might emerge. Maybe games will gobble up increasing bandwidth. We could see shared virtual reality social spaces, of the kind Mark Zuckerberg envisions with his Oculus VR acquisition. The Internet's future applications haven't been invented yet.
In the future Wheeler is proposing, small startups in these emerging spaces will be locked out, unable to pay for prioritization while the existing giants will buy high performance.