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FCC's plan for 'Net neutrality' rules falters

The FCC has halted discussions amid reports spread that Google and Verizon will propose their own, less regulatory framework for Net neutrality.

August 07, 2010

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski's first major initiative — a proposal to require broadband providers to give equal treatment to all legal Web traffic — is foundering. The chairman sought a compromise with opponents of the proposed "Net neutrality" rules, holding a series of talks with major Internet service providers and Web companies. But the commission halted the discussions Thursday as reports spread that Google and Verizon, which have been negotiating privately for almost a year, were about to propose their own, less regulatory framework for Net neutrality.

Genachowski is right about the need for enforceable rules that prevent broadband providers from blocking or slowing access to websites and services they don't favor. So far there have been only a few such incidents on DSL and cable-modem networks. But Internet service providers are itching to create a toll lane to deliver content and services from companies that have the resources to pay for better access to consumers. If that toll lane crowds out the free and open Internet that's been a breeding ground for innovation and creativity, the whole economy will suffer.

The right approach would bar broadband providers from discriminating unfairly against any legal content or services, or from denying consumers meaningful access to an Internet that's open to all on an equal basis. Such rules, however, would also allow Internet providers to offer toll lanes and other customized services to content providers, as long as they maintain enough bandwidth to meet the demand for a level-playing-field version of the Net. Open networks not only meet consumers' expectations — witness the demise of AOL's "walled garden" approach — they also give upstarts a chance to compete with established businesses on the strength of their ideas and their technology, not the size of their budgets. Google and Verizon outlined several of these principles in a submission to the FCC in January, albeit with few details.

A major problem for the commission is that its authority to adopt such rules isn't clear. Genachowski had hoped that the talks with Internet service providers and Web companies would yield a consensus on a bill Congress could quickly pass to grant the FCC clear but limited authority over broadband access. The breakdown of those talks complicates matters, and suggests that Genachowski may have to rethink his plan to enforce Net neutrality by bringing 21st century broadband providers under rules originally designed for 20th century telephone services. Whatever route it takes, though, the commission should move now.

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