The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has taken the first step toward creating formal Net neutrality rules, despite a huge lobbying effort from opposing groups in recent days.
The FCC voted Thursday to open a rulemaking process and begin receiving comments on a proposal to create new Net neutrality rules following a contentious debate on whether new regulations are needed.
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The FCC is still months away from voting on the final regulations, but the rules, as proposed, would allow Web users to run the legal applications and access the legal Web sites of their choice, while prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web content. Providers could use "reasonable" network management to reduce congestion and maintain quality of service, but the rules would require them to be transparent with consumers about their efforts.
Under the FCC proposal, wireless broadband services would be included in the Net neutrality rules. The FCC will seek comments on how to treat managed network services.
The rules are necessary to protect innovation on the Internet and preserve the openness that has allowed the Internet to blossom, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
"The problem is not merely that we've seen some significant situations where broadband providers have degraded the data streams of popular lawful services and blocked consumer access to lawful applications," he said. "The heart of the problem is that ... we face the dangerous combination of an uncertain legal framework with ongoing as well as emerging challenges to a free and open Internet.
"Given the potentially huge consequences of having the open Internet diminished through inaction, the time is now to move forward with consideration of fair and reasonable rules of the road," he added.
But Commissioner Robert McDowell suggested the Internet has seen massive growth because of a lack of regulations. The proposed rules regulate network providers, but not Web applications vendors, while supporters assume new innovation will come from applications and not networks, he said.
"The Internet is perhaps the greatest deregulatory success story of all time," said McDowell, a Republican. "No government has ever succeeded in mandating innovation and investment."
New rules could inadvertently hurt the growth of the Internet and give a precedent to other nations that want to create all kinds of new Internet regulations, McDowell added. But he praised Genachowski for creating an open and collegial rulemaking process.
Net neutrality advocates began pressing hard for new rules in 2005, after the FCC phased out rules requiring traditional telecom carriers to share their broadband networks with competitors. That same year, the FCC approved four informal Net neutrality principles, but broadband provider Comcast, in a lawsuit, has challenged the FCC's authority to enforce those principles.