WASHINGTON — Citing concerns over the emerging “breaks and cracks” in the open architecture of the Internet, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission today unveiled a proposal to bolster the agency’s support of the core principle of Net neutrality.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution, a prominent Washington think tank, Julius Genachowski said he plans to circulate proposed rules to the commissioners that would amount to the agency’s most explicit mandate of non-discrimination requirements for Internet service providers to date.
“Notwithstanding its unparalleled record of success, today the free and open Internet faces emerging and substantial challenges,” Genachowski said. “We’ve already seen some clear examples of deviations from the Internet’s historic openness.”
He cited the dust-up last year that resulted in the FCC voting to rebuke Comcast for throttling traffic from the peer-to-peer site BitTorrent, and failing to inform subscribers about its network-management practices, as well as some of the recent instances of broadband providers blocking access to Internet phone applications.
Genachowski said he would propose adding two principles to the Internet policy statement the FCC adopted in 2005, which has served as its rough blueprint for handling Net neutrality disputes.
He plans to add a fifth principle to codify the requirement that ISPs do not slow or degrade transmissions of specific services or applications, and a sixth to stipulate that they disclose to consumers how they are managing their networks.
The other two Democrats on the five-person commission, Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, quickly expressed support of the chairman’s Net neutrality proposal.
Genachowski also said he would call on the FCC to adopt the principles as commission rules, a move that would attempt to clarify the commission’s authority to regulate Internet transmissions.
Comcast has challenged the commission’s decision last year in a case that is still pending in a Washington court. Some analysts have suggested that if the court were to rule that the FCC did not have the statutory authority to enforce the Internet principles, the decision would build momentum in Congress to move on Net neutrality legislation.
A Net neutrality bill is currently pending in the House. Last week, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee announced his intention to sign on as a co-sponsor, fueling speculation that the bill could see action this fall.
Impact for wireless
Genachowski said this morning that he would seek to include all types of networks in the proposed rulemaking, telegraphing his intention to bring Net neutrality obligations to the wireless industry.
[cob:Special_Report]”Even though each form of Internet access has unique technical characteristics, they are all are different roads to the same place,” he said. “It is essential that the Internet itself remain open, however users reach it.”
Wireless firms and their principle trade association, CTIA, have lined up as staunch opponents of any efforts to apply Net neutrality to the mobile Web.
Earlier this month, CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent told InternetNews.com that wireless Net neutrality was the policy proposal that worried him the most when assessing the current regulatory landscape.
Largent said that wireless carriers, unlike cable and telecom providers, have to balance the demands of cell towers to ensure that phone calls aren’t crowded out by data-hungry Web traffic.
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David Young, Verizon’s director of Internet and technology policy, sat for a panel discussion this morning following Genachowski’s speech, and explained that his firm shared the chairman’s goal of an open Internet, but echoed Largent’s concerns about the impact on the wireless sector.
“Wireless is a very different environment than wireline,” Young said. “It creates unique network management requirements that quite frankly don’t exist on a high-capacity fiber network.”
Following Genachowski’s speech, CTIA issued a statement reiterating its concern “about the unintended consequences Internet regulation would have on consumers.”
Seeking to defuse that sort of criticism that invariably greets any form of Net neutrality proposal, the chairman declared this morning, “This is not about government regulation of the Internet. It’s about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet.”
He added, “We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity.”
For VoIP provider Skype, which has struggled to make its application available on wireless networks and petitioned the FCC to impose open-access rules on carriers, today’s announcement was “an extremely welcome development,” according to CEO Josh Silverman.
“Let me be clear: There is only one Internet,” he said in the panel discussion following Genachowski’s speech. “The exact same expectations you have of your PC, you’re going to have of your mobile phone.”
To gather public comment on the proposed rulemaking, which Genachowski promised would be “fair, transparent, fact-based, and data-driven,” the FCC today launched the Web site OpenInternet.gov.
Genachowski said the commission would hold a series of workshops on the issue, just as it has been with its work developing a national broadband strategy, and engage the public through new media tools like YouTube and Twitter.
“Anyone will be able to participate in this process, and I hope everyone will,” he said.