Preserving Net neutrality — that is, preventing the companies that provide the Internet's infrastructure from picking winners and losers among websites and online services — may sound like the tech-industry equivalent of protecting motherhood and apple pie, but policymakers in Washington can't seem to agree on whether to do it, let alone how. This week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski laid out another proposal, this time using an ill-fated bill drafted by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) as its foundation. The details remain to be seen, but the framework is a good one.
A common criticism of the push for Net neutrality is that there's no problem to be solved. But this view ignores the tension between broadband providers and the online services that are pushing a growing amount of traffic onto their networks. Just look at the dispute Comcast triggered when it imposed a fee on the company that delivers Netflix's video streams. With so little competition to check broadband providers' behavior — in the typical Comcast market, consumers have only one affordable alternative — it makes sense to set ground rules for how they treat traffic to and from the Web.
The Waxman draft, which was backed by a number of telecommunications and Web-based companies, was designed largely to continue the status quo online: It would have allowed Internet providers to manage their networks within reasonable limits, but not to block legal content, applications or devices. Its most controversial provision would have barred Internet providers from discriminating unreasonably against any lawful type of traffic, which some critics complained would limit innovative business models and traffic-management technology.
The provision was neither as vague nor as restrictive as it sounded, however. A similar requirement has long applied to telephone networks, so its meaning has clarified over the years. And the ban wouldn't stop Internet providers from experimenting with new business models, such as creating premium tiers or charging customers based on the amount of data they send and receive. That's a reasonable approach, provided that the rules don't permit broadband providers to undermine their standard Internet offerings in favor of their premium tiers.
Critics, including the commission's two Republican members, quickly denounced Genachowski's move, saying the FCC didn't have the authority to adopt the rules. It's worth noting that many of the same critics strenuously opposed Genachowski's earlier plan to reclassify broadband as a communications service, which would have given the FCC clear authority to adopt sweeping regulations that go far beyond Net neutrality. The Waxman draft stopped well short of that, and it garnered bipartisan support before a senior House Republican blocked it. It was a sensible compromise that met an untimely end, and it's good to see Genachowski trying to revive it.