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FCC considers ways to assert authority over Web access, as court questions oversight

The Federal Communications Commission is considering aggressive moves to stake out its authority to oversee consumer access to the Internet, as a recent court hearing and industry opposition have cast doubt on its power over Web service providers.

The FCC, which regulates public access to telephone and television services, has been working to claim the same role for the Internet. The stakes are high, as the Obama administration pushes an agenda of open broadband access for all and as big corporations work to protect their enormous investments in a new and powerful medium.

"This is a pivotal moment," said Ben Scott, director of policy at the public interest group Free Press. The government wants to treat broadband Internet as a national infrastructure, he said, like phone lines or the broadcast spectrum. But federal regulators are grappling with older policies that do not clearly protect consumers' access to the Web, their privacy or prices of service.

The issue may have reached a turning point last week when a federal appeals court questioned the limits of the FCC's authority in a 2008 case involving Comcast. The agency had ordered the Internet and cable giant to stop blocking subscribers' access to the online file-sharing service BitTorrent. But in an oral hearing last Friday, three judges grilled an FCC lawyer over whether the agency had acted outside the scope of its authority.

The appeals court is still hearing the case, but analysts predict that the FCC will lose and that the ruling could throw all of its efforts to oversee Internet access into question. A loss could undermine the legality of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's push for policies that would prohibit service providers from restricting customers' access to legal Web content -- the concept known as net neutrality -- and throw into doubt the agency's ability to oversee pricing and competition among Internet service providers.

Here's the full story in today's paper.

By Cecilia Kang  |  January 15, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
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