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FCC votes to begin crafting 'net neutrality' rules

October 23, 2009|Cecilia Kang

With a unanimous vote to move forward on a rule-making process for how the government would police access to the Internet, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski won a victory Thursday on his first major policy issue at the agency.

The chairman, picked by President Obama, said, "The heart of the problem is that, taken together, we face a dangerous combination of an uncertain legal framework with ongoing as well as emerging challenges to a free and open Internet."

Republican Commissioners Robert M. McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker voted in favor of the proposal but said they dissented on "facts" of the proposal. They said their votes were for the beginning of a data-gathering process, which should last at least 120 days. They did not say whether they would vote in favor of ultimate rules and have disagreed that the Internet appears to need more regulation.

"Today we do disagree on substance. I do not agree with the majority's view that the Internet is showing breaks and cracks and that the government . . . needs to fix it," McDowell said. "Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the commission is starting a process, not ending one."

He also said that in considering such rules, the FCC needed to weigh whether the policy should apply to a broader array of companies that feed into the Web, instead of just access providers such as AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Comcast Corp. and Sprint Nextel Corp.

The FCC doesn't have jurisdiction over the Internet but is the watchdog agency over communications companies that enable consumers and businesses to access the Web -- the so-called onramps to the Internet.

When asked about his views on expanding regulation to include Web content firms such as Google Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Skype Ltd., Genachowski said the agency should be cautious.

"This whole proceeding has always been about Internet access providers," Genachowski said after the meeting. "We should be cautious before tackling issues of onramp providers to the Internet itself."

"The government's role in preserving openness is important but also modest," Genachowski said at the meeting. "I have to be clear that government should not be in the business of running or regulating the Internet."

The most contentious details will be on precise definitions for how carriers can reasonably manage traffic on their networks. There will also be much debate on what managed services, such as telemedicine and some video applications, should fall under final rules.

Genachowski said that the rules would apply across all platforms of broadband access, including mobile Internet, and that the agency would consider technical questions and take into account the concerns of wireless providers.

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Kang writes for the Washington Post.

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