FCC approves preliminary net neutrality rules

WASHINGTON--The FCC voted to move forward with a proposal to codify its four net neutrality principles, and add nondiscrimination and transparency stipulations to the regulations, rules that are intended to govern both the wireless and wired Internet.

In a highly anticipated action, the commission voted 5-0 to begin the rule-making process. However, today's vote represents just the beginning of the FCC's rule-making process; there are likely to be months of debate on the topic. Then, the FCC will consider how to change the rules before voting any on final regulations.

Interestingly, the two Republican commissioners, Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker, dissented in part on today's vote, arguing that the commission should proceed with its eyes open to the unintended consequences of the new regulations. They said they were unsure that there was enough of a problem to warrant new regulations, and questioned whether the FCC had the authority to impose the new rules. The GOP comissioners' dissent essentially signals that they intend to move forward with the action, but disagree with the current language in the proposal.

Initial comments on the proposal are due Jan. 14.

Wireless carriers have argued that net neutrality rules should not be imposed on wireless networks based on their unique characteristics. However, the draft rules acknowledged that wireless networks have different network architectures, market structures, patterns of consumer usage and regulatory history than wired networks. The draft rules will seek comment on how, in what time frames and to what extent the rules should apply to wireless.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said it was time to launch "a process to craft reasonable and enforceable rules of the road to preserve a free and open Internet."

"The heart of the problem is that, taken together, we face the dangerous combination of an uncertain legal framework with ongoing as well as emerging challenges to a free and open Internet," Genachowski said. "Given the potentially huge consequences of having the open Internet diminished through inaction, the time is now to move forward with consideration of fair and reasonable rules of the road, rules that would be enforceable and implemented on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, it would be a serious failure of responsibility not to consider such rules, for that would be gambling with the most important technological innovation of our time."

In addition to codifying the FCC's principles on access to content, applications and services and competition, as well as the ability to connect any device to the network, the draft will mandate that, subject to "reasonable network management," content needs to be treated in a nondiscriminatory manner and that broadband providers need to disclose information concerning network management.

The debate over what "reasonable network management" means is likely to be one of the many points of contention as the debate continues. The draft rules say that such management includes practices that reduce or mitigate network congestion, address traffic that is unlawful, unwanted by users or deemed harmful. The commission staff also noted that nothing in the rules will prohibit service providers from delivering emergency communications.

Additionally, the notice seeks comment on how to define managed services, such as subscription video services, telemedicine or smart grids, and how the new policies should apply to them. The commission also is going to form a technical outreach group to discuss network management issues and all other issues that have technical ramifications.

The FCC's net neutrality push has been the subject of intense lobbying during the past several weeks, with carriers, unions, Internet firms and venture capitalists alike weighing in. AT&T has been one of the most outspoken critics of the rules, while Google and consumer advocacy groups such as Free Press have been the most vocal supporters. Interestingly, though, there has been some recent harmony: Google and Verizon Wireless announced in a blog post that they both supported the rule-making process.

For more:
- see this AP article
- see this Google public policy blog post
- see Genachowski's comments

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