FCC Sparks New US Net Neutrality Row

The FCC’s proposed “rules” for an open Internet have re-ignited an ideological firestorm over intervention

Rules to ensure an open Internet, proposed by the US telecoms regulator, the FCC, have re-ignited the debate in the US over net neutrality and government intervention.

To push forward President Obama’s tech policy, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has produced a draft set of rules designed to stop mobile operators and telecoms providers from discriminating against Internet traffic from rivals. The proposal, described as “basic rules of the road”, will be discussed at an open meeting on 21 December, but are already meeting fierce opposition.

Does the FCC have the authority?

Net neutrality was a key tech promise in Preident Obama’s election campaign, and FCC chairman Ira Genachowski has set out rules which he says are consistent with President Obama’s commitment to “keep the internet as it should be – open and free”.

However, two members of the FCC have already spoken out against the rules, saying they are “reckless” and claiming that the FCC does not have the authority to intervene.

“We do not have the authority to act,” said commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, a Republican who argues that the Internet should be unregulated and any decisions should be taken by elected representatives.

Meanwhile Democrat commissioner Michael Copps says the proposals don’t go far enough. “I am looking for the strongest protections we can get to preserve an open Internet, built on the most secure legal foundations,” he said.

Third way proposal

The debate hinges on whether the Internet is a telecoms service, and therefore under the FCC’s regulatory power, or an information service, and outside FCC management.

In a nutshell, Democrats wanting to implement the original Obama proposal favour one option called “Title II”, which would define the Internet as a telecoms service and give FCC power to regulate it as it does phone companies, while Republicans want Title I, which would define it as an information service, and limit what the FCC can do.

Genachowski set out proposals in May, intended as a “third way” between two options, giving the FCC some powers, and annoying both camps. The issue has been stalled most of this year, because in April the US Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC did not have authority to stop US service provider throttling BitTorrent traffic on its networks.

With the FCC quiet, providers Google and Verizon have come up with their own agreement which claims to support net neutrality but has been criticised for ““prioritizing profitability higher than social responsibility.”

While the net neutrality debate is entrenched and bitter in the US, it is only just beginning in the UK, where there are concerns that the government may abandon the principle. Culture minister Ed Vaizey has apparently endorsed the idea that Internet providers could prioritise traffic from business partners. Labour MP Tom Watson has proposed a debate in the House of Commons on the issue, and Vaizey has apparently backtracked somewhat.

“Removing net neutrality is likely to reduce innovation and reduce people’s ability to exercise their freedom of speech,” said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group. “ORG will campaign against any market abuse, if companies like BT, Sky and Virgin restrict customers’ Internet access for market advantage.”