FCC chairman calls for formal net neutrality rules

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will move to create formal net neutrality rules prohibiting Internet providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web content and applications, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.

Genachowski announced a notice of proposed rulemaking, a process to formalize a set of broadband policy principles that the FCC has embraced since August 2005. In addition to the four policy principles, Genachowski called for two additional principles to be included in a formal set of net neutrality rules.

"The Internet is an extraordinary platform for innovation, job creation, investment, and opportunity," Genachowski said in a speech before the Brookings Institution. "It has unleashed the potential of entrepreneurs and enabled the launch and growth of small businesses across America. It is vital that we safeguard the free and open Internet."

The notice of proposed rulemaking will look not only into net neutrality rules on traditional wired broadband networks, but also explore whether to impose new rules on broadband networks offered by mobile phone carriers, the FCC said. Genachowski said he wants all six principles to apply to all platforms that access the Internet.

Mobile broadband services offered by carriers such as Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile have not been subject to the FCC's net neutrality principles.

The FCC has enforced the broadband policy principles on a case-by-case basis, but it has never made formal net neutrality rules. Broadband provider Comcast filed a lawsuit challenging the FCC's authority to enforce the principles after the agency ruled last August that Comcast had to stop slowing peer-to-peer traffic in the name of network management.

The Comcast lawsuit was filed late last year, and a ruling is pending. Comcast argued that the FCC needs to create a rule or get authority from the Congress to enforce net neutrality. In addition to Genachowski's new rulemaking, a bill pending in Congress would give the FCC that authority.

Several broadband providers have opposed formal net neutrality rules, saying they could hamper provider efforts to roll out new services, manage their networks and protect against attacks and bandwidth hogs.

But Genachowski said there have been examples in recent years of broadband providers blocking or slowing applications, including peer-to-peer software and VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) service. There has been one example of a broadband provider blocking political content, he noted.

"Notwithstanding its unparalleled record of success, today the free and open Internet faces emerging and substantial challenges," he said. "The rise of serious challenges to the free and open Internet puts us at a crossroads. We could see the Internet's doors shut to entrepreneurs, the spirit of innovation stifled, a full and free flow of information compromised. Or we could take steps to preserve Internet openness, helping ensure a future of opportunity, innovation, and a vibrant marketplace of ideas."

A Comcast spokeswoman said the company would comment soon. Representatives of AT&T, Verizon Wireless and CTIA, a trade group representing mobile carriers, weren't immediately available for comment.

There are four broadband principles that would be formalized:

  • Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
  • Consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
  • Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

In addition, Genachowski proposed two new principles. The first would prevent Internet access providers from discriminating against particular Internet content or applications, while allowing for reasonable network management. The second principle would ensure that Internet access providers are transparent about the network management practices they implement.

Genachowski will seek a notice of proposed rulemaking during the FCC's October meeting. The notice will ask the public and interested companies for feedback on the proposed rules and their application -- such as how to determine whether network management practices are reasonable, what information broadband providers should disclose about their network management practices, and how the rules apply to differing platforms -- including mobile Internet access services, the FCC said.

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