September 21, 2009 By Blake Harris
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will move to create formal net neutrality rules prohibiting Internet providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web content and applications, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced today. Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd at the Brookings Institution, Genachowski proposed not only making its net-neutrality guidelines permanent, but also added a couple of new ones:
- Broadband providers cannot discriminate against services or applications by slowing them down (such as video)
- Broadband providers must tell customers how its engineers manage the network when it gets congested (which might apply to Internet calling services like Skype)
Up to now, the FCC has addressed net neutrality by announcing four Internet principles that would guide its case-by-case enforcement of the communications laws. These principles boil down to the following: Network operators cannot prevent users from accessing the lawful Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, nor can they prohibit users from attaching non-harmful devices to the network.
These principles were initially articulated by Chairman Michael Powell in 2004 as the "Four Freedoms," and later endorsed in a unanimous 2005 policy statement issued by the Commission under Chairman Kevin Martin and with the forceful support of Commissioner Michael Copps, who remains on the Commission today.
Genachowski now proposes that the FCC adopt the existing principles as Commission rules, along with the two additional principles that, he said, reflect the evolution of the Internet and that are essential to ensuring its continued openness. This essentially would make its net-neutrality guidelines permanent, something that will delight some and frustrate others. As Amy Schatz noted on her WSJ Blog, "Reaction to the speech was swift and fell mostly along party lines. Consumer groups and Internet companies like Amazon and Google were thrilled. Comcast, AT&T and other Internet providers fell much (much) farther down the happy scale."
"I am convinced that there are few goals more essential in the communications landscape than preserving and maintaining an open and robust Internet," Genachowski said in the speech. "I also know that achieving this goal will take an approach that is smart about technology, smart about markets, smart about law and policy, and smart about the lessons of history. The rise of serious challenges to the free and open Internet puts us at a crossroads. We could see the Internet's doors shut to entrepreneurs, the spirit of innovation stifled, a full and free flow of information compromised. Or we could take steps to preserve Internet openness, helping ensure a future of opportunity, innovation, and a vibrant marketplace of ideas. "
He went on to describe that history: "How do you design a network that is 'future proof' -- that can support the applications that today's inventors have not yet dreamed of? The solution was to devise a network of networks that would not be biased in favor of any particular application. The Internet's creators didn't want the network architecture -- or any single entity -- to pick winners and losers. Because it might pick the wrong ones. Instead, the Internet's open architecture pushes decision-making and intelligence to the edge of the network -- to end users, to the cloud, to businesses of every size and in every sector of the economy, to creators and speakers across the country and around the globe. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the Internet is a "blank canvas" -- allowing anyone to contribute and to innovate without permission."
This is clearly the philosophy that Genachowski wants to firm into permanent rules that will guide FCC decisions going forward.
Genachowski said he will soon circulate to the Commissioners the proposed rules prepared by Commission staff embodying the principles he outlined and ask for their support in issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking. This