IDG News Service - The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in a historic vote Tuesday, approved network neutrality rules prohibiting broadband providers from blocking customer access to legal Web content, but many consumer groups decried the new regulations as weak and full of loopholes.
The new rules provide fewer protections for mobile broadband subscribers and may lead to a fractured Internet, critics said. The new rules, a compromise championed by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, would bar wireline-based broadband providers -- but not mobile broadband providers -- from "unreasonable discrimination" against Web traffic, prompting some consumer groups to call the rules "fake" net neutrality.
Genachowski's plan, approved after more than seven years of debate about whether net neutrality rules are needed, also contains several loopholes for broadband providers, critics said, including an exception for managed services separate from the public Internet.
But Genachowski defended the rules as "strong and balanced."
"As we stand here now, the freedom and openness of the Internet are unprotected," he said. "No rules on the books to protect basic Internet values. No process for monitoring Internet openness as technology and business models evolve. No recourse for innovators, consumers, or speakers harmed by improper practices. "And no predictability for Internet service providers, so that they can effectively manage and invest in broadband networks.
Critics on the other side of the net neutrality debate, including Commissioner Robert McDowell, ripped the action as unnecessary and legally dubious. The new order is an attempt to circumvent an April ruling by a U.S. appeals court striking down an FCC effort to enforce informal net neutrality principles, he said.
"This new effort will fail in court as well," McDowell said. The rules adopted Tuesday will be "tied up in courts for years," he predicted.
The National Journal reported Tuesday that Verizon Communications was mulling a lawsuit over the new rules. A Verizon spokesman wasn't immediately available for comment.
McDowell argued that the Internet is working and that new regulations would hurt investment in broadband. The FCC's action will put the agency on a "collision course" with Congress, where about 300 lawmakers have raised concerns about net neutrality rules, McDowell said.
There have been "fewer than a handful" of examples of net neutrality violations in recent years, he added, and the FCC has resolved those cases in favor of consumers under current law. "Nothing is broken in the Internet access market that needs fixing," McDowell said.
Genachowski disagreed, saying Internet investors need consistent rules going forward.
"We are told by some ... not to try to fix what isn't broken, and that rules of the road protecting Internet freedom would discourage innovation and investment," he said. "We have heard from so many entrepreneurs, engineers, venture capitalists, CEOs and others working daily to invent and distribute new Internet products and thereby maintain U.S. leadership in innovation. Their message has been clear: the next decade of innovation in this sector is at risk without sensible rules of the road."
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