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FCC approves net neutrality regulations

In a highly controversial vote, the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday approved new regulations for Internet access designed to prevent large telecommunications companies from squashing competitors.

The so-called net neutrality rules prohibit companies that provide high-speed Internet service from blocking access by customers to any legal content, applications or services, such as using the free Skype online phone service. 

For the first time, there will be government regulations to keep information flowing freely on the Internet and requiring Internet service providers to give customers more details about how they run their networks.

The rules will be tougher on wired Internet service from cable and phone companies than it will be on such service provided by wireless carriers because that market is in an earlier stage of development and is evolving quickly.  For wired services, the FCC added an additional rule prohibiting Internet providers from “unreasonable discrimination” in how they treat access to content and services.

The goal of that regulations is to prevent companies that provide Internet access from giving priority to their own offerings , such as the ability to watch TV shows or movies online, or slowing the delivery of services from competitors.

The FCC vote Tuesday was the culmination of more than five years of debate over whether regulations were needed. The rules are expected to come under tough congressional scrutiny and be challenged in court by telecommunications companies.

Read on:

Democrats, online activists and large Internet companies such as Google Inc. have pressed for tough rules to guarantee continued open access to the Internet. President Obama was an early supporter of net neutrality and made it part of his 2008 campaign.

But Republicans, free-market advocates and telecommunications providers have strongly opposed net neutrality regulations, contending that they aren’t needed and could damage the Internet economy. Still, AT&T Inc. has said the FCC rules are less restrictive than what many advocates have called for and that it could support them as a way of reducing the uncertainty about what the commission might do.

The FCC split 3-2 along party lines Tuesday in approving the new regulations before a standing-room only crowd at its Washington, D.C., headquarters. Chairman Julius Genachowski and the two other Democrats in the majority supported the compromise proposal he had spent months crafting.  

“As we stand here now, the freedom and openness of the Internet is unprotected.  No rules on the books to protect basic Internet values,” Genachowski said. “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 the Internet service providers, so that they can manage and invest in broadband networks.”

Genachowski said the rules the FCC approved Tuesday will “ensure that the Internet remains a powerful platform for innovation and job creation, to empower consumers and entrepreneurs, and protect free expression.”

Democratic Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Mignon Clyburn said that while the rules don’t go as far as they wanted, they were a good first step. Copps echoed the criticism of some public-interest and digital-rights groups that wired and wireless Internet access would be treated differently.

“After all, the Internet is the Internet, no matter how you access it,” Copps said. But he said he concurred in Genachowski’s proposal to move net neutrality forward before political pressures against it increase with Republicans taking control of the House in January.

The FCC’s two Republicans voted against the plan. They said it was an unwarranted government intrusion into a fully functioning  Internet economy that oversteps the agency’s legal authority following a court decision this year that struck down a less formal FCC principle that high-speed Internet providers should keep their networks open.

“The FCC is not Congress. We cannot make laws,” said Republican Commissioner Robert M. McDowell. “Some are saying that instead of acting as a cop on the beat, the FCC looks more like a regulatory vigilante.”

Republican Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker was more direct, saying “Respectfully, I really, really, really dissent.” She accused the FCC of acting simply to fulfill an Obama campaign promise to enact net neutrality rules.

Their objections have been echoed by key congressional Republicans, who have warned the FCC not to pass any net neutrality regulations and have promised hearings on the actions early next year. 

“Today, the Obama administration, which has already nationalized health care, the auto industry, insurance companies, banks and student loans, will move forward with what could be a first step in controlling how Americans use the Internet by establishing federal regulations on its use,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) said Tuesday. “This would harm investment, stifle innovation, and lead to job losses.  And that’s why I, along with several of my colleagues, have urged the FCC chairman to abandon this flawed approach.

"The Internet is an invaluable resource. It should be left alone.”

-- Jim Puzzanghera

 
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