By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday pushed back to July 18 the first deadline to submit comments on the agency's proposed new Internet traffic rules after a surge in traffic overwhelmed its online filing system.
Companies, consumer advocates, lawmakers and citizens had sent nearly 680,000 comments on the FCC's proposed so-called net neutrality rules -- which guide how Internet service providers (ISPs) manage web traffic on their networks -- as the deadline for first comments approached on Tuesday.
For much of Tuesday, however, the database appeared to be down or unaccessible, which FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart attributed to an "overwhelming surge in traffic."
"Please be assured that the Commission is aware of these issues and is committed to making sure that everyone trying to submit comments will have their views entered into the record," she said, announcing a delay of the deadline to midnight on July 18.
After that, commenters will be able to reply to each other's initial submissions through Sept. 10.
The proposal has attracted one of the biggest responses in FCC's history, showcasing the complicated and intense nature of the debate launched after a federal court in January struck down the FCC's previous version of such rules.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed rules that would ban ISPs from blocking users' access to websites or applications but would allow some "commercially reasonable" deals between content providers and ISPs to prioritize delivery of some traffic.
The proposal stirred up consumer advocates who have long advocated that the FCC reclassify and regulate ISPs as telecommunications services, like public utilities -- a move rejected by cable and wireless companies and by Republicans both in Congress and at the FCC.Wheeler has not proposed reclassification as the solution, but has not taken it off the table as a potential route, though some industry experts have suggested reclassification could leave the door open for paid prioritization deals.
"Reclassification ... is not only entirely unnecessary but would be unwise and likely unlawful," Comcast Corp said in its filing on Tuesday. Thirteen prominent Senate Democrats, including Ed Markey, Richard Blumenthal, Cory Booker, Charles Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, in turn wrote to the FCC calling for reclassification, with appropriate legal caveats for the industry.
Another call for reclassification on Tuesday came in co-signed comments from the attorneys general of New York and Illinois, Eric Schneiderman and Lisa Madigan.
Several web companies such as Vimeo and Etsy have also urged the FCC to reclassify ISPs, though the industry's Washington representative, the Internet Association, has not sought that specific approach in its opposition of the FCC allowing some pay-for-priority deals.
"We don't want to live in a world where there are fast lanes and slow lanes for the Internet because we don't believe we could afford to pay for the fast lane," Etsy's policy director, Althea Erickson, told Reuters TV on Monday.
"It's really hard to imagine Etsy being able to start and grow under the conditions that the chairman is proposing."
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld and Lily Jamali in New York and Marina Lopes in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bernard Orr and Leslie Adler)