FCC Agrees to Set Rules on Net Neutrality

[qi:105] The Federal Communications Commission at an open meeting today approved a draft of proposed rules related to net neutrality. As expected, the rules call for transparency and aim to ensure that the owners of the broadband pipe can’t discriminate against certain traffic on the wired and wireless Internet. But the draft also allows for reasonable network management in response to congestion, asks tough questions regarding managed services, and seeks to apply the principles of network neutrality to players other than the Internet service providers.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is the formal process by which the FCC will seek to codify six principles into formal regulations, and drive comments about its plans for net neutrality. Three of the five commissioners approved the proposal, with the two Republican commissioners concurring and dissenting in part.  For readers already weary of hearing about this debate, the pre-game trash talk and threats can finally end, and we can start arguing about a solid plan. Comments based on this initial proposal are due Jan. 14 with replies to those comments due March 5.

Here’s the summary of the proposed rules:

Under the draft rules, subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service may not:

  1. prevent any of its users from sending or receiving the lawful content of the user’s choice over the Internet;
  2. prevent any of its users from running the lawful applications or using the lawful services of the user’s choice;
  3. 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;
  4. deprive any of its users of the user’s entitlement to competition among network providers, application providers, service providers, and content providers.
  5. A provider of broadband Internet access service must treat lawful content, applications and services in a nondiscriminatory manner.
  6. 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 rule-making.”

However, the commission is also asking tough questions about managed services and how those may be used to circumvent net neutrality principles, as well as seeking to expand some rules beyond ISPs to application providers and other entities doing business on the web. Presumably, this is in response to Google’s (s goog) defense of its decision to not allow rural callers to use or receive calls from its Google Voice service. From the draft rules:

The Notice affirms that the six principles it proposes to codify would apply to all platforms for broadband Internet access, including mobile wireless broadband, while recognizing that different access platforms involve significantly different technologies, market structures, patterns of consumer usage, and regulatory history.

The two Republican commissioners, Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker, both expressed their approval of an open Internet, but also questioned whether the FCC has the legal authority to draft a net neutrality policy. McDowell also cautioned that the rest of the world will be watching what the U.S. does in this arena, offering the  threat that less democratic countries may seek to regulate their own countries’ Internet access but out of “less pure motives” and with undemocratic results.

In closing, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski reiterated the fact that this notice is only the beginning of a necessary process. (He cited the lawsuit filed earlier this year by Comcast as a perfect example of why this rule-making must commence.) He also stressed that this will be a flexible and light-handed process saying:

Fourth, the government’s role in preserving openness is important but also modest. It should be no greater than necessary to achieve the core goal of preserving a free and open Internet. Open Internet rules should be high-level, not heavy-handed. And in fact, the draft rules in the Notice are less than two pages long. The goal is to provide a fair framework in which all participants in the Internet ecosystem can operate, ultimately minimizing the need for government involvement.

Today’s vote marks the true beginning of this net neutrality rule-making process, which is not likely to see an end until spring of 2010 at the earliest — and then the lawsuits will commence. So nestle in, because it’s going to be a long winter of carrier and community discontent.

For those not utterly tired of the process, here is the FCC web site where you can comment, as well as links to our previous coverage:

FCC’s Net Neutrality Push to Boldly Go Where Congress Has Failed Thrice Before

FCC Outlines Its Net Neutrality Proposal

The GigaOM Guide to the Net Neutrality Debate

How Google News Upends the Net Neutrality Fight (sub. required)

He Said What? The GigaOM Net Neutrality Quiz