Longform

Hunted: Comcast Leads a Plot Against the Internet

Like any bloodless coup, this one takes place within the palace, beyond the purview of prying eyes. It's an inside job spearheaded by the ultimate of inside players, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. He's a former Obama fundraiser, cable lobbyist, and head of the cable trade association, chosen by the president to chaperone the same industry he once served.

Wheeler's loyalties were evident in May, when he proposed segregating the Internet between the haves and have-nots. Under the plan, cable operators soon could charge large companies like Netflix extra to move their wares over a high-speed expressway. Anyone who couldn't pay the toll would be relegated to frontage roads.

Critics believe Wheeler's plan will diminish competition and squelch innovation. Present rules dictate that all traffic move at the same speed, part of a long-standing principle known as "net neutrality." It puts a basement blog on the same footing as the Huffington Post and enables smarter companies to eclipse monied market leaders, in the way Facebook dispatched MySpace.

Yet Wheeler's proposal not only would hand a windfall to his former masters; it would allow cable operators to slow customers' content, regardless of promised connection speed. And it would give prevailing tech companies an advantage on upstart competitors who'd disproportionately feel the pinch of cable's fast-lane Internet tolls.

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Chris Parker
Contact: Chris Parker