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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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FCC Chair Seeks Strong Net Neutrality Rules

(CN) - The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday proposed regulating Internet service as a public utility, describing it as the best way "to preserve the Internet as an open platform for innovation and free expression."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced his intentions in an opinion piece published on Wired magazine's website Wednesday morning.

"I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC," Wheeler wrote. "These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply - for the first time ever - those bright-line rules to mobile broadband.

"My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone's permission," he added.

Supporters of net neutrality, or an open Internet, have been fighting a long time to hear Wheeler say these words.

In 2009, the FCC proposed a rule to prevent telecommunications companies from blocking sites based on their views or whether the site might be competition.

Earlier that year, in Comcast v. FCC, the D.C. Circuit struck down the commission's first attempt to enforce network neutrality regulations.

Then, in a January 2014 appeal brought by Verizon, the D.C. Circuit found that the FCC does not have the authority to regulate broadband internet companies because the agency, in 2002, determined that broadband internet is not a "common carrier" like a phone company or other utility, except as to the extent it is involved in telecommunications. Instead, they were called "information services."

In line with this decision, Wheeler said he would propose allowing companies such as Netflix and Google to pay Internet providers for special, faster lanes to send video and other content to their customers.

But the proposal inspired a huge public outcry.

The FCC was inundated with almost 4 million public comments through the summer, and in November, President Barack Obama took the rare step of expressing his opinion on the matter.

"'Net neutrality' has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation - but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted," the president said. "We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas."

Taking these comments to heart, Wheeler fashioned a proposal that would reclassify ISPs as common carriers, subject to FCC regulation, and impose three "bright line" rules: no blocking of access to legal content, no throttling of internet traffic, and no paid prioritization favoring some websites over others.

However, the new rules would exempt ISPs from price regulation and tariffs that apply to other kinds of utilities.

"Congress wisely gave the FCC the power to update its rules to keep pace with innovation. Under that authority my proposal includes a general conduct rule that can be used to stop new and novel threats to the internet. This means the action we take will be strong enough and flexible enough not only to deal with the realities of today, but also to establish ground rules for the as yet unimagined," Wheeler said in Wired.

In a statement, Verizon responded to Wheeler's proposal, saying, "Heavily regulating the Internet for the first time is unnecessary and counterproductive. It is unnecessary because all participants in the Internet ecosystem support an open Internet, and the FCC can address any harmful behavior without taking this radical step."

The company, which has headed lobbying and legal efforts to defeat net neutrality, claimed that the proposal, if adopted, will "chill investment" in broadband networks.

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