FCC chairman calls for net neutrality law

An Internet regulation bill is being debated in the U.S. House.
Katie Prince / Graphic Designer

The head of the nation's top communications regulator outlined six principles of net neutrality the agency supports in a speech Monday, rekindling debate over the extent to which governments can regulate the Internet.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski introduced two new principles the agency would use in its enforcement of communications law, as part of the Six Freedoms of the Internet. He also unveiled a Web site, www.openinternet.gov, to promote the agency's stance.

"The Internet is an extraordinary platform for innovation, job creation, investment and opportunity," Genachowski said in his speech. "It has unleashed the potential of entrepreneurs and enabled the launch and growth of small businesses across America. It is vital that we safeguard the free and open Internet."

The previous four principles stated consumers must be able to access the lawful Internet content, applications and services of their choice and attach non-harmful devices to the network.

The two new principles would prevent Internet access providers from discriminating against particular Internet content or applications, while ensuring Internet access providers are transparent about the network management practices they implement.

Both chambers of Congress reacted quickly to the chairman's speech. In the House, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, endorsed the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which is before his committee. That bill would prevent Internet Service Providers from blocking, slowing or halting Internet traffic to certain Web sites or applications.

Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who sits on the committee, said in a statement he opposed the bill and disagreed with Genachowski's call for the government to regulate ISP practices, when no major problems have arose.

"Today's announcement was a solution in search of a problem," Blunt said. "The chairman's concern that some problems may occur in the future is not a valid basis upon which to regulate."

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, proposed an amendment to an appropriations bill to prevent the FCC from spending any money to enforce net neutrality legislation.

The measure was co-sponsored by several Republicans, but was quickly dropped after Genachowski agreed to meet with senate Republicans to discuss their objections.

George Ou, policy director for Digital Society, a conservative digital policy think tank, said his group opposes the House bill and the FCC's Six Freedoms, particularly the fifth tenet of non-discrimination.

Ou said the expansion of video and other multimedia content on the Web would result in more large applications that clog the Internet's information pipelines. He said ISPs need to control the flow of data so those pipelines will not become blocked.

"We've heard that any priority given to one application over another is discrimination and that's nonsense," Ou said. "This is why we oppose net neutrality legislation, because it outlaws prioritization."

Tim Karr, campaign manager of the pro-net neutrality group Free Press, said companies will simply use that power for corporate competition.

"The element missing from the Four Freedoms of 2005 is the element of non-discrimination," Karr said. "There's too much incentive for the them to use discrimination to hurt their smaller rivals."

Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, said the FCC's recommendations to make net neutrality enforceable were both necessary and feasible.

"We think that's the way 21st century communications should work," Cooper said. "The network operators should not get to decide what content should grow."

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