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FCC OK’s Internet service rules

Net neutrality backers, foes not happy with results

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / December 22, 2010

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The Federal Communications Commission yesterday approved new regulations designed to prevent Internet service providers from blocking or interfering with online content they send to homes and businesses. The 3-to-2 vote by commissioners highlighted deep divisions over the question of whether government should regulate the Internet.

Reaction to the vote was just as divided. Internet activists complained that the new regulations aren’t strict enough to ensure “Net neutrality,’’ the principle of guaranteed equal access to all Internet content. US Representative Ed Markey, Democrat of Malden, a leading Net neutrality backer, said the new rules “could have been better.’’ Opponents of online regulation denounced the entire process as an unwarranted expansion of government power.

The FCC rules prohibit broadband companies from secretly restricting Internet services, and require that they make public information about how their networks function. The regulations also forbid service providers from blocking any kind of lawful online traffic, and ban the providers from engaging in “unreasonable discrimination’’ that would result in some Internet content being given favorable treatment, including faster download speeds.

The regulations cover both landline Internet services and the wireless data networks offered by cellphone companies. The rules are less strict for wireless services, however, because they have much less data capacity and can handle less traffic than landline services, such as those offered by cable companies. Wireless companies will have greater freedom to bar services that might place too much stress on their systems.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said the regulations “would preserve basic Internet values. For the first time, we’ll have enforceable rules of the road to preserve Internet freedom and openness.’’

In a statement released yesterday by the White House, President Obama said, “Today’s decision will help preserve the free and open nature of the Internet while encouraging innovation, protecting consumer choice, and defending free speech.’’

But Markey wanted more. For example, Genachowski said the agency would “as a general rule’’ forbid Internet carriers from selling “fast lane’’ services that offer companies higher speeds for their Internet traffic, but Markey wants a total ban on the practice, saying it would give wealthier Internet companies an advantage over smaller firms. Markey also wanted the FCC to apply all its regulations to wireless and landline services alike.

Still, Markey said he can live with the new rules. “It’s clearly not perfect, but if it is enforced, it’s a step forward,’’ he said.

Other Net neutrality supporters were more skeptical. “For the first time in history, the US government approved corporate censorship of the Internet, putting the future of online free speech at risk,’’ the advocacy group Progressive Change Campaign Committee said in a statement.

But opponents of Net neutrality denounced the ruling. “The FCC is unilaterally trying to change the Internet from being competition-driven to being regulation-driven . . . with no fact-based justification for unprecedented Internet intervention,’’ said Scott Cleland, the chairman of Netcompetition.org, a lobbying group funded by major broadband providers.

Verizon Communications Inc., one of the country’s largest broadband providers, issued a scathing response of its own. “This assertion of authority without solid statutory underpinnings will yield continued uncertainty for industry, innovators, and investors,’’ said Tom Tauke, Verizon’s executive vice president of public affairs, in a statement.

The FCC vote split along party lines. The three Democratic commissioners backed the new rules, while the two Republicans opposed them. GOP Commissioner Robert McDowell called the vote “one of the darkest days in recent FCC history,’’ and argued that the commission lacked the legal authority to impose the rules on Internet companies.

In April, a federal court threw out a 2008 FCC sanction against Comcast for slowing down access to an Internet service known as BitTorrent. The court ruled that no law gave the FCC power to oversee Internet companies. Genachowski has said that he believes the new rules are backed by federal laws. Net neutrality critics and backers agreed that the new rules will end up in federal court.

As Republicans prepare to take control of the House of Representatives next month, GOP members said they’ll take a hard look at whether the FCC has again exceeded its authority. Representative Cliff Stearns of Florida, incoming chairman of the subcommittee on oversight of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement he’ll try to pass legislation to block the new rules.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.