Unanimous FCC vote launches net neutrality initiative

President Obama promised as a candidate last year to overturn the Bush administration's stand against net neutrality. Last week, the new administration's FCC began a course of action to do just that.

On Thursday, all five members of the FCC voted to begin writing new net neutrality regulations. The rules, opposed by the majority of Republicans in Congress, will prohibit all broadband providers from favoring or discriminating against certain kinds of Internet traffic. The two Republican FCC members expressed concerns about the initiative even though they voted affirmatively to begin the rulemaking process.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said that net neutrality rules are needed to ensure that broadband subscribers can access all legal Web sites and services, including Internet calling applications and video sites that compete with the broadband companies' core businesses. “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,” Genachowski said.

Genachowski has a solid majority on the FCC from the two other Democrats. Republican commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker voted in favor of the proposal, but said they dissented on "facts" of the chairman’s plan. They did not say whether they will vote in favor of ultimate rules and have disagreed that the Internet needs more regulation.

Under the draft FCC rules, subject to reasonable network management, a network provider of broadband Internet access service may not prevent any of its users from sending or receiving the lawful content of the user's choice over the Internet; prevent any of its users from running the lawful applications or using the lawful services of the user's choice; or prevent any of its users from connecting to and using on its network the user's choice of lawful devices that do not harm the network. The operator may not deprive any of its users of the user's entitlement to competition among network providers, application providers, service providers and content providers.

A provider of broadband Internet access service must treat lawful content, applications and services in a nondiscriminatory manner. And a provider of broadband Internet access service must disclose such information concerning network management and other practices as is reasonably required for users and content, application, and service providers to enjoy the protections specified in this rulemaking.

The FCC said draft rules make clear that providers would also be permitted to address harmful traffic and traffic unwanted by users, such as spam, and prevent both the transfer of unlawful content, such as child pornography, and the unlawful transfer of content, such as a transfer that would infringe copyright. Further, nothing in the draft rules supersedes any obligation a broadband Internet access service provider may have — or limits its ability — to deliver emergency communications, or to address the needs of law enforcement, public safety, or national or homeland security authorities, consistent with applicable law.

The commission is also seeking comment on how it should address "managed" or "specialized" services, which are Internet Protocol-based offerings provided over the same networks used for broadband Internet access services. While the proceeding will seek input on how best to define and treat such services, managed services could include voice, video and enterprise business services, or specialized applications like telemedicine, smart grid or eLearning offerings. These services may provide consumer benefits and lead to increased deployment of broadband networks.

Comments are due to the FCC by Jan. 14. Reply comments are due by March 5. A full FCC vote is expected by next summer.