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Intelligent Machines

FCC Chief Proposes Broader Net Neutrality Rules

Planned regulations would govern the openness of the Internet, no matter if you’re surfing the Web on a laptop or a smartphone.

The ease with which information flows through the Internet has inspired many technical and business innovations.

The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, has outlined a proposal for so-called net neutrality rules that would prohibit Internet service providers from blocking access to websites, throttling Internet service speeds, or offering companies the ability to pay to have their Web traffic prioritized over others (often called a “fast lane”).

In an opinion piece published today on Wired’s website, Wheeler stated the main tenets of his proposal and wrote that these rules would also apply to mobile broadband, which now accounts for the majority of U.S. Internet traffic.

Wheeler wrote that the rules, which the commission will vote on during an open meeting on February 26, are intended to “preserve the Internet as an open platform for innovation and free expression.”

“My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission,” he wrote.

From the FCC’s point of view, the proposed rules are meant to make sure that Internet service providers—both broadband providers like Comcast and companies that offer wireless data services like Sprint—don’t get in the way of consumers doing things like watching movies on Netflix, shopping on Amazon, or posting on a personal blog.

Wheeler believes the FCC can put these rules in place in part because of the “Title II” of the Communications Act of 1934, which, he wrote, will be “modernized for the 21st century” to keep broadband companies interested in continuing to invest in the networks they’ve built (the rules won’t, for instance, add any rate regulation or tariffs).

The proposed rules mark the FCC’s latest attempt at regulating Internet traffic; last year, in an appeal to a case that Verizon Wireless filed against the FCC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with Verizon by tossing out rules the FCC put forth in 2010 that sought to force broadband Internet companies to treat all traffic flowing over their networks the same. A senior FCC official, speaking with reporters about the new rules, also noted that they are poised to ensure that the commission has the ability to address any future related issues that could threaten openness on the Internet, online competition, or free expression.

Among the supporters of the plan is the Internet Association, an industry group whose members include Amazon, Netflix, Google, Facebook, and eBay, which said in a statement that Internet companies are “pleased” to hear of Wheeler’s plan to strengthen net neutrality rules and to include mobile broadband.

“There is only one Internet, and users expect that they be able to access an uncensored Internet regardless of how they connect,” the group wrote.

AT&T seems open to the FCC’s plan. In a statement, Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, said the company believes a “middle ground exists” that will keep the Internet open without putting necessary investments at risk and creating legal uncertainty.

“We were able to find such a path in 2010, and will do our very best to seek such a path today,” he said, pointing to AT&T’s support for the 2010 net neutrality rules that were eventually squashed.

The FCC is also getting plenty of pushback. A few hours after Wheeler’s remarks were published, Verizon Wireless’s senior vice president and deputy general counsel for public policy and government affairs, Michael E. Glover, said in a statement that “heavily regulating the Internet for the first time is unnecessary and counterproductive” and will “create uncertainty and chill investment among many players,” not just Internet service providers.

To emphasize that Verizon sees the move as a step backward, Glover’s statement was dated February 4, 1934—the year that the Communications Act was signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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