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02 Dec 2010

US regulators are set for a showdown over rules to ensure an open internet.

The rules are intended to prohibit phone and cable companies blocking or discriminating against internet traffic over their broadband networks.

Net neutrality was one of the Obama administrations top campaign pledges to the technology industry.

Today, the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Julius Genachowski sent draft rules to its members.

Two Republican commissioners have already said they oppose the chairman's "reckless" proposal which they will be asked to vote on when the Commission meets on 21 December.

In a speech in Washington, Mr Genachowski said his rules were "consistent with President Obama's commitment to "keep the internet as it should be - open and free".

"It is the internet's openness and freedom - the ability to speak, innovate and engage in commerce without having to ask anyone's permission - that has enabled the internet's unparalleled success."

Commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker issued comments criticising the chairman's move.

"This is a mistake," said Commissioner Baker.

"We do not have the authority to act."

The two other Democratic members, Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn have not commented so far but have in the past said they support net neutrality.

The Chairman needs three votes to pass his plan on 21 December.

Third way

The issue of net neutrality has been in limbo for months following a ruling earlier in the year when the courts said the FCC did not have the authority to penalise cable firm Comcast because it slowed some internet traffic going over its network.

Since then the Commission has been thrown into disarray over the best way to safeguard the future of an open web where all traffic is treated the equally.

Mr Genachowski had in the summer proposed a so-called "third way" where he suggested reclassifying broadband under stricter regulations.

Phone and cable companies were critical and said this stricter reclassification of broadband would stifle innovation and investment. Technology companies however have argued that regulations are needed to keep the internet free of restrictions.

Search giant Google and telecom titan Verizon came up with a compromise in August where fixed line services would be treated differently to that of wireless. That proposal was not taken up.

Mr Genachowski has now abandoned the "third way" approach. Senior Commission officials now say they are confident the Chairman's agenda can proceed without reregulation and that they have a "legally sound approach" going forward that does not involve stricter regulation.


Despite the confidence of the Chairman and senior Commission officials that they have the legal authority under existing rules to move ahead, advocacy groups are not convinced.

"While we are pleased this issue is now on the (FCC's) agenda but we think the Chairman should have pushed through on his "third way" which would have provided a firmer legal foundation," said Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge.

"This one will go to court. They all do and this is a gamble."

The Centre for Democracy and Technology's Leslie Harris called Mr Genachowski's move "a first step, but a critical one" but noted that "adopting these historic rules will not be the end of the internet neutrality debate, it will be just the end of the beginning".

Josh Silver of the public interest group Free Press said he believes Mr Genachowski should have gone further to secure the future of an open web.

"To achieve real net neutrality and preserve the level playing field that is the DNA of the internet, the FCC must do a lot better than offer failed proposals we have seen this year floated by big corporations or designed to win the unanimous consent of Congress."

Verizon has also welcomed the Chairman's move and said "the stated objective of this initiative - an open internet- is not an issue.

"The only issue is the extent to which the FCC should regulate in this area," said Tom Tauke, Verizon's vice president of public affairs, police and communications.

"In this fast-moving marketplace, inappropriate regulation can be very harmful to consumers, companies and the ability of this industry to create jobs, provide new services, and be an engine for economic growth. That is why it is so important that policymakers get this right.


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