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FCC Wants to Be Smart Cop of Internet; Questions on Details Remain

The devil is always in the details.

That's what Verizon's vice president of regulatory affairs, David Young, told me after the FCC announced its proposal Monday morning of new rules on how operators treat Web content and services on their networks.

In his speech at the Brookings Institution, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski described the FCC's role to be the "smart cop on the beat preserving a free and open Internet."

As reported, he proposed two additional guidelines for network operators such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and Sprint Nextel that would prevent them from deliberately blocking Web services and content and force carriers to disclose how they manage Web traffic.

Genachowski said examples of discriminatory behavior -- including Comcast allegedly blocking peer-to-peer service BitTorrent on its network -- show that rules need to be in place to stop such practices and that there needs to be greater transparency by network operators for entrepreneurs and consumers of the Web to ensure they are able to build Internet businesses and get the services they expect from their providers.

"This is not about protecting the Internet against imaginary dangers. We're seeing the breaks and cracks emerge, and they threaten to change the Internet's fundamental architecture of openness," Genachowski said.

That said, he suggested the FCC should evaluate alleged net neutrality violations on a case-by-case basis.

"This approach, within the framework I am proposing today, will allow the commission to make reasoned, fact-based determinations based on the Internet before it -- not based on the Internet of years past or guesses about how the Internet will evolve," Genachowski said in his speech.

He said the proposed principles won't prevent broadband providers from "reasonably managing their networks." But defining what is reasonable management is where debate by carriers big and small and regulators will go forward, observers said.

Young said: "I'm pleased to hear that the chairman intends to do only as much as needed and no more. ...We need to see what are the problems that need to be fixed and what are the examples that require a dramatic change."

Young warned against regulating the Internet in a panel discussion after the announcement and said the company supports an open Internet architecture and has poured investment into new spectrum it won in a federal auction last year with net neutrality conditions.

The questions over what is reasonable management of Web traffic are particularly pronounced when it comes to wireless. AT&T said bandwidth constraints on its wireless network require a different approach than to its wireline service. The company said it would support the new principles to all platforms except wireless.

Genachowski addressed some network management arguments:

"During periods of network congestion, for example, it may be appropriate for providers to ensure that very heavy users do not crowd out everyone else. And this principle will not constrain efforts to ensure a safe, secure, and spam-free Internet experience, or to enforce the law. It is vital that illegal conduct be curtailed on the Internet. As I said in my Senate confirmation hearing, open Internet principles apply only to lawful content, services and applications -- not to activities like unlawful distribution of copyrighted works, which has serious economic consequences. The enforcement of copyright and other laws and the obligations of network openness can and must co-exist."

By Cecilia Kang  |  September 21, 2009; 2:33 PM ET  | Category:  Cecilia Kang
Previous: AT&T Says Keep Net Neutrality Rules Off Wireless | Next: Republicans to Push Against Net Neutrality; FCC Says Start of Process

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