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FCC boss moves for stiffer net neut rules

'Smart cop on the beat'

The head of the US Federal Communication Commission has proposed formal net neutrality rules that would prohibit internet service providers from discriminating against particular content or applications.

"Because it is vital that the Internet continue to be an engine of innovation, economic growth, competition and democratic engagement, I believe the FCC must be a smart cop on the beat preserving a free and open Internet," Obama-appointed FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said in a Washington D.C. speech (PDF) on Monday morning.

In August 2005, the FCC laid down a policy statement (PDF) meant to encourage a so-called open internet, and Genachowski wants to transform this quartet of policy "principles" into formal FCC rules - while adding two new rules of his own.

Taken together, the four existing principles say that ISPs cannot prevent netizens from accessing lawful internet content, applications, or services of their choice or attaching non-harmful devices to the network. In addition, Genachowski wants a fifth rule that prohibits discrimination.

"This means they cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others in the connection to subscribers’ homes. Nor can they disfavor an Internet service just because it competes with a similar service offered by that broadband provider. The Internet must continue to allow users to decide what content and applications succeed," he said.

He then added that this would not prevent operators from "reasonably managing their networks. During periods of network congestion, for example, it may be appropriate for providers to ensure that very heavy users do not crowd out everyone else. And this principle will not constrain efforts to ensure a safe, secure, and spam-free Internet experience, or to enforce the law."

Alleged infringement of this non-discrimination principle, Genachowski said, would be evaluated by the FCC on a case-by-case basis.

Another new rule would require ISPs to be "transparent" about their network management practices. "The Internet evolved through open standards. It was conceived as a tool whose user manual would be free and available to all. But new network management practices and technologies challenge this original understanding. Today, broadband providers have the technical ability to change how the Internet works for millions of users - with profound consequences for those users and content, application, and service providers around the world."

As an example, Genachowski cited the infamous the case of Comcast surreptitiously blocking BitTorrents - though he didn't mention the company by name. In August of 2008, the FCC censured Comcast based on its existing principles, ordering the company to stop its BitTorrent busting. Comcast then filed a lawsuit arguing the FCC didn't have the power to do so, and the case is still pending.

Today, he FCC boss also said that all six rules should apply to wireless net providers as well as wired. "Even though each form of Internet access has unique technical characteristics, they are all are [sic] different roads to the same place. It is essential that the Internet itself remain open, however users reach it. The principles I’ve been speaking about apply to the Internet however accessed," he said.

The FCC is currently investigating Apple's rejection of Google Voice, a telephony application, on the iPhone. But Genachowski's net neutrality rules are aimed specifically at network operators. Many have wondered whether the iPhone exclusive US carrier, AT&T, played a role in the rejection of Google's Voice, but Big Phone denies any involvement.

Genachowski's announcement is not unexpected. A former Harvard law school classmate of the President, Genachowski was Barack Obama's chief technology adviser during his election campaign, and he helped pen the Barack Obama Technology and Innovation Plan (PDF), which began by telling the world that Obama hopes to ensure "the Full and Free Exchange of Information through an Open Internet and Diverse Media Outlets." ®

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