FCC’s Genachowski gives strong net neutrality endorsement

FCC chair proposes two additional rules to commission’s net neutrality principles

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski proposed two new rules that would bar carriers from blocking or degrading lawful Web traffic and force carriers to be more open about traffic management practices.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski today proposed new rules that net neutrality advocates have longed to hear.

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During a speech at the Brookings Institute, Genachowski proposed adding two new rules to commission policy that would bar carriers from blocking or degrading lawful Web traffic and that would force carriers to be more open about their traffic management practices. Genachowski said that the two rules are necessary to preserve the openness of Internet architecture and to ensure that carriers are accountable to consumers.

In proposing the first rule, Genachowski said that carriers should not be allowed to favor certain types of content or applications over others and that they could not degrade traffic of Internet companies that offer services similar to those of the carriers. Genachowski said that carriers would retain the rights to manage their networks and that nothing in the rules would stop carriers from ensuring that “very heavy users do not crowd everyone else out” during peak traffic hours.

“Broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications,” Genachowski said. “The Internet must continue to allow users to decide what content and applications succeed.”

Genachowski said that enforcing the non-discrimination rule would occur on a case-by-case basis, just as the commission has enforced its other traffic management provisions in the past. The commission’s most famous net neutrality-related ruling came last summer, when the FCC barred Comcast from using peer-to-peer traffic management practices that target individual protocols for slowing or blocking. In that particular case, Comcast sent TCP RST packets to users who were uploading large files, telling them that there was an error within the network and that a new connection would have to be established.

Genachowski cited the Comcast case as the impetus for the second proposed new rule that would force carriers to be more transparent in their traffic management practices.

“[Comcast’s] blocking was initially implemented with no notice to subscribers or the public,” he said. “It was discovered only after an engineer and hobbyist living in Oregon realized that his attempts to share public domain recordings of old barbershop quartet songs over a home Internet connection were being frustrated. It was not until he brought the problem to the attention of the media and Internet community, which then brought it to the attention of the FCC, that the improper network management practice became known and was stopped.”

Genachowski emphasized that while he wanted to see more transparency about traffic management from carriers, the new rules “will not require broadband providers to disclose personal information about subscribers or information that might compromise the security of the network, and there will be a mechanism to protect competitively sensitive data.”

David E. Young, the vice president of federal regulatory affairs for Verizon Communications, said during a panel discussion after the speech that he was cautiously optimistic that carriers could work within the new proposed rules while still retaining the rights to properly manage their networks. In particular, he said he is glad to see that alleged violations of the rules would continue to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and that Genachowski is “only willing to do what is needed and no more” in terms of regulating carriers’ traffic management policies. Traditionally, the major telcos have uniformly opposed net neutrality rules by arguing that such government intervention would take away ISPs' incentives to upgrade their networks, thus stalling the widespread deployment of broadband Internet.

While the initial Verizon reaction to Genachowski’s new proposed rules was somewhat subdued, the reaction from Google, which has long seen net neutrality as a linchpin of its public policy goals, was far more enthusiastic. In a post on Google’s Public Policy blog today, Google chief Internet evangelist Vint Cerf said that the company “could not be more pleased to see Chairman Genachowski take up this mantle, and we look forward to working with the Commission as it finalizes its plans.”

“The Internet was built as an open platform, which means that the creators of new services and content do not need to seek permission from carriers or pay special fees to be seen online,” wrote Cerf. “Allowing a handful of broadband carriers to determine what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the features that have made the Internet such a success.”

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