FCC plan could revive ‘net neutrality’

The proposal is intended to strike a balance that can satisfy both internet service providers that oppose new regulations and public-interest groups that are demanding greater consumer protections. FCC officials stressed that they intend to regulate only internet connections, not the online services flowing through them.

The FCC soon will seek public comment on Genachowski’s proposal. It would have to be approved by three or more of the FCC’s five commissioners, and Genachowski is expected to have the support of his two fellow Democrats.

Several public-interest groups and at least one key Democrat who sits on the House committee that oversees the FCC, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, praised the proposal. “With this decision, the FCC will ensure that the agency remains the ‘cop on the beat,’ protecting consumers and competition on the World Wide Web,” Markey said.

But Republicans lined up against the plan.

The two Republican FCC commissioners, Robert McDowell and Meredith Baker, said the proposal would “shatter the boundaries” of the agency’s authority and discourage broadband providers from investing in their networks by imposing “burdensome rules excavated from the early Ma Bell monopoly era onto 21st-century networks.”

House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio called the plan “a government takeover of the internet.”

The battle is likely to play out in a courtroom if the big phone and cable companies decide to challenge the new framework. The companies already oppose Genachowski’s net-neutrality proposal, warning that restrictions on what they can do with their networks will discourage them from investing in their lines.

Tom Tauke, Verizon’s top Washington official, said Genachowski’s new approach to regulation is “legally unsupported” and “could ultimately harm consumers and inhibit the innovation and investment he wants to encourage.”

Comcast said that while it is disappointed with the FCC proposal, it is prepared to work with the agency. But Comcast might be more open to compromise than other companies, because it needs FCC approval to take a controlling stake in NBC Universal.

It was Comcast that helped set in motion the events leading to the April court ruling.

The case centered on the company’s behavior in 2007 when it interfered with subscribers using the online file-sharing service BitTorrent, which lets people swap movies and other big files. Comcast said the service was clogging its network, but public-interest groups maintained that the company saw the swapping of video files as a threat to its cable business.

The FCC, then led by Republican Kevin Martin, ordered Comcast to stop blocking subscribers from using BitTorrent and based its decision on net-neutrality principles it had adopted in 2005.

Comcast challenged the order in court. It argued that the order was illegal, because the agency was seeking to enforce principles and not regulations or laws. That’s one reason Genachowski is now pushing the FCC to adopt formal net-neutrality rules that would apply across the industry.

Comcast also had argued that the FCC lacked authority to mandate net neutrality because it had deregulated broadband by classifying it as an information service under the Bush administration. Now, Genachowski’s next move could reverse course on that approach.

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