The Federal Communications Commission said Thursday that it will study whether stronger language is necessary in its policy on protecting Net neutrality, but consumer groups and Democratic commissioners criticized the move for not being bold enough.
At its monthly open meeting in Washington D.C., the FCC voted to issue a notice of inquiry on "broadband industry practices" that will include a discussion of an open Internet. A notice of inquiry allows people to file public comments about a particular issue.
Net neutrality refers to the idea that network operators such as AT&T and Verizon should not be allowed to prioritize content or services that traverse their networks. The issue has been hotly debated since telecommunications executives began arguing that they should have the right to charge extra for premium placement on their networks to recoup vast investments in their infrastructure.
Internet companies quickly mounted grassroots campaigns calling for federal regulations barring such a practice. Lawmakers have answered the call, introducing legislation that would prohibit network operators from blocking or degrading access to Internet content and services.
The FCC adopted four Net neutrality principles in 2005 to show that the commission is committed to supporting open access on the Internet. But Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, has said repeatedly that he doesn't see a need to draft specific regulations or legislation to protect the openness of the Internet.
Martin said Thursday that the notice of inquiry will allow the FCC to collect evidence of abuses and information about business practices on the Internet for the public record. This data will foster a more informed debate, he said.
Democratic Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan Adelstein said they supported the measure, but expressed disappointment in the FCC for not doing more. Copps said stronger action is needed as the telecommunications market consolidates and market power is concentrated among only a few large players. He said the FCC should add another principle to its Internet policy statement that incorporates a new principle of nondiscrimination.
"It is time for us to go beyond the original four principles and commit (the) industry and the FCC unequivocally to a specific principle of enforceable nondiscrimination, one that allows for reasonable network management but makes clear that broadband network providers will not be allowed to shackle the promise of the Internet in its adolescence," Copps said.
He also chided the commission for not doing more to push this principle forward. While notices of inquiry might help gather information, he also said they "tend to disappear into a regulatory dust bin."
Instead he urged the commission to, at the very least, put a time frame on the inquiry to make sure it doesn't get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle.
"We should be building on what we have already approved and going with at least a notice of proposed rulemaking with a commitment to move to an order within a time certain," he said.
Republican commissioners Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell cautioned colleagues not to push for legislation that might have unintended consequences that could stifle development of the Internet. They each pointed out that the Commission has not yet received any complaints of abuse.
"We must resist the temptation to impose regulation based merely on theory," McDowell said.
But consumer groups supporting regulation or new laws supporting Net neutrality said that waiting until the phone companies develop discriminatory business models could mean waiting until the damage is already done.
"Simply because telephone and cable companies are on their best behavior today, while the commission and Congress examine the issue, is no reason to delay action to protect consumers and content providers in the future from the actions of network operators which have said they will split the Internet into a privileged fast lane, and a dirt road for everyone else," Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in a statement.
"Waiting until the network operators have implemented those plans and then trying to regulate after the fact, as some have suggested," she added, "will not be effective in protecting consumers and protecting innovation."