FCC votes to require equal treatment for Web content


— 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 “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.

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 Barack 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 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 although 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-Ky.,
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.”


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