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FCC chief proposes new Net neutrality rules

Chairman Julius Genachowski says the FCC should turn its four Internet openness principles into regulation. And he suggests adding two more principles.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

As expected, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski on Monday outlined a plan to keep the Internet open.

In a speech given at the Brookings Institute, Genachowski proposed that the FCC turn its four principles of network openness official into regulation. And he suggested that the FCC add two more "principles" as part of these new rules.

The existing principles can be summarized this way: Network operators cannot prevent users from accessing lawful Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, nor can they prohibit users from attaching non-harmful devices to the network.

Now Genachowski is proposing 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 tried to alleviate fears that the FCC will overstep its bounds and create rules that hamper innovation.

"I am convinced that there are few goals more essential in the communications landscape than preserving and maintaining an open and robust Internet," he said. "I also know that achieving this goal will take an approach that is smart about technology, smart about markets, smart about law and policy, and smart about the lessons of history."

The debate over so-called Net neutrality began heating up about three years ago, when congressional leaders first held hearings on potential laws to ensure that Internet service providers couldn't monkey with traffic. There is no clear definition of the term "Net neutrality," but in general it refers to the concept that Internet users should have unfettered access to content and services. In other words, service providers should not be allowed to either impede or favor access to particular sites or applications.

The discovery that the nation's largest cable operator, Comcast, had slowed down certain kinds of peer-to-peer traffic on its network fanned the flames and sparked public outrage over such practices.

But the fight to create new laws or regulation to protect Net neutrality languished after the FCC publicly admonished Comcast for violating its open Internet principles. These principles aren't regulation and the FCC is somewhat powerless in imposing any real punishment for violating the rules. Still, the slap on the wrist coupled with public outcry was enough to get Comcast to change its practices.

Getting to "greater transparency"
Genachowski reasoned that the principles now need to be actual regulation, and that broadband providers need to know the rules of the road and need to know that they must adhere to rules to ensure open access for everyone.

"We cannot afford to rely on happenstance for consumers, businesses, and policymakers to learn about changes to the basic functioning of the Internet," he said. "Greater transparency will give consumers the confidence of knowing that they're getting the service they've paid for, enable innovators to make their offerings work effectively over the Internet, and allow policymakers to ensure that broadband providers are preserving the Internet as a level playing field."

But large broadband providers such as AT&T, Verizon Communications, and Comcast have opposed new regulation or laws protecting Net neutrality. They argue that imposing new rules would prevent them from managing their networks. And they also argue it would prevent them from introducing tiered pricing to their service line-up.

Genachowski addressed these issues in his speech as well. He assured service providers that the FCC would examine violations of these Net neutrality rules case by case. He also said that the rules are not intended to prevent network operators from handling congestion on their networks. And he specifically said that broadband providers would be able to manage networks when they are congested. He also said that service providers could introduce new tiered services, so long as there is enough Internet capacity to allow for open access to the rest of the Internet.

"I recognize that if we were to create unduly detailed rules that attempted to address every possible assault on openness, such rules would become outdated quickly," he said. "But saying nothing--and doing nothing--would impose its own form of unacceptable cost."

Genachowski also made it clear that the Net neutrality rules he plans to make regulation will be applied to wireless provider, too.

"It is essential that the Internet itself remain open, however users reach it," he said. "The principles I've been speaking about apply to the Internet however accessed."

Genachowski said that the FCC would issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking at the its October meeting. And he said the Commission will be seeking input and feedback from anyone interested in contributing to the process of making the rules. For example, he said, the FCC would be looking for input on 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.

As part of the announcement, the FCC launched a new Web site to encourage public participation.