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THE next four months are vitally important to ensuring equitable treatment on the Internet, and guaranteeing the federal government moves to reclassify Internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers — the basic utilities they have become.

The Federal Communications Commission is soliciting opinions from the public over the next 120 days to determine how to proceed. The Internet, as consumers know it, is at stake.

With a bit of bureaucratic footwork, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler turned his proposal into a notice of proposed rule-making to decide how to protect the Internet.

After protests by his two Democratic colleagues, Wheeler modified his proposal to also ask the public if pay-for-priority deals — fast lanes on the Internet — should be banned, and if the FCC should oversee broadband as a utility.

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Yes, allowing ISPs to offer content providers special deals to speed up their service should be banned. Yes, the Internet must be regulated as a common carrier.

Wheeler artfully modified the discussion, but his proposal is still muddled. The proposal would still allow payment for premium service, but he claims the presence of a fast lane does not mean others are in a slow lane. And, he suggests, corporate abuses could be monitored and regulated.

Experts tracking the FCC, such as media advocate Free Press, do not accept that Wheeler’s invocation of Title I and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has the regulatory muscle or court approval to accomplish what the chairman describes.

A federal court recently told the FCC it had the authority to regulate broadband providers as utilities if the commission invoked the communication act’s Title II. Wheeler appears not to have noticed.

Tim Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press, describes the next four months as the summer to save the Internet. The public must hold the commission accountable, as local protesters did at a rally Thursday at a Kirkland business complex.

Wheeler claims he would never let a two-tier Internet become a reality, but his own plan would allow higher speeds to go up for bid.

That would be a direct financial impediment for innovators with great ideas and limited resources to challenge established content providers who could lock in their market position.

The Internet has no place for fast lanes and pay-for-priority service. The FCC must rework the regulatory environment to protect net neutrality and consumers.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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