The Federal Communications Commission is expected to propose new rules this month that could change one of the Internet's most distinctive features: net neutrality.

Under that principle, no matter whose websites you visit, your provider has to deliver all content at the same speed. But what providers such as Comcast and Verizon would like the FCC to approve is  "tiered service" or "paid priority," in which online content would arrive faster from sources who pay extra.

Nothing is official, but according to reports in Wall Street Journal and New York Times, the FCC is considering approving these sorts of "fast lanes."

Hannah Sassaman of the Media Mobilizing Project said that would hurt consumers and businesses alike.

"Paid prioritization might mean that if you want to reach your customers at a really fast speed, they might want to charge you more for that access, even though you already pay money to Comcast to get access every month," she said.

Sassaman was one of about 30 people demonstrating in front of the Comcast headquarters Thursday night in Philadelphia. Similar protests took place in about 20 cities nationwide. The idea is to drum up support for net neutrality and opposition to the FCC's proposal.

Support for tiered service is strong among telecoms and other Internet providers; an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation found that among its leading supporters are Verizon, Comcast and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Opposition comes from consumers and tech companies such as Microsoft and Google; the FCC has already received almost 4 million comments on the subject, with one analysis finding them running 99 to one in favor of retaining the net-neutral status quo.

Comcast supports net neutrality and has no plans for high-priced fast lanes, a spokeswoman said.

But she also said that Comcast supports changing FCC regulations to make paid priority pricing possible. The FCC is expected to deliver proposed new regulations within the month, with a vote coming as early as December.


(Bill Hangley/WHYY)