White House to publish “net neutrality” rules

The FCC’s controversial new “net neutrality” rules for the Internet adopted late last year have gotten White House clearance to be published in the Federal Register — a move that is expected to ignite legal challenges.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget gave approval to the new rules last week. This step was necessary before the rules are published in the Federal Register, which will take another two to three weeks.

The “net neutrality” rules attempt to balance fair treatment of competing content with the need for Internet providers to manage their networks. The rules were considerably weakened from what the Obama administration campaigned for in 2008, but are still controversial with the major Internet service providers who want no government regulation. The rules go into effect 60 days after publication.

The new regulations would prohibit ISPs from blocking access to lawful content. They also would require transparency on mobile broadband providers’ policies on throttling data. Verizon currently forces customers to use plan minutes rather than data for mobile VoIP apps such as Skype, and blocks access to Google on some handsets with Microsoft’s Bing pre-installed.

Verizon and MetroPCS Communications both accused the FCC of overstepping its authority in a challenge shortly after the FCC’s 3-2 vote. But, a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last April found the challenges premature since they came prior to publication of the rules in the Federal Register.

The same court also ruled last year that the FCC lacked the authority to stop Comcast from blocking bandwidth-hogging applications on its broadband network. That decision led to the FCC’s latest rules.

The debate has focused on a huge divide between those who say the Internet should flourish without regulation and those who say the power of high-speed Internet providers to discriminate against competitors needs to be restrained.

The delay between the FCC’s vote and official publication was unusually long, prompting some industry sources and former regulators to accuse the commission of intentional foot-dragging to stall court challenges. The FCC, however, attributed the delay to data collection requirements that were subject to the Paperwork Reduction Act review process.