WASHINGTON (CBS) — Federal regulators on Tuesday adopted controversial new rules meant to protect the Internet from interference, capping a fight that’s run nearly a decade over whether such safeguards are even necessary.
The new rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission strengthen current agency guidelines to ensure fair play on the Internet, an idea known as Net neutrality. The goal is to guarantee that consumers can reach any Web site they want at the prices and speeds they are used to.
Under these rules, cable-television and phone companies that control Internet networks such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. would be barred from blocking access to competing applications such Internet telephony or to other Web sites like Google or Netflix Inc.
MarketWatch’s Jeff Bartash tells KFWB’s Maggie McKay have many critics worried about stifling innovation in the private sector.
Consider Netflix: since the movie-rental service began to offer video downloads, it’s become one of the most heavily trafficked sites on the Internet. Without stricter rules, supporters say, Comcast could block video downloads from Netflix or force Netflix to pay a fee for the privilege.
“No authority should have the power to pick winners or losers on the Internet,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, one of three Democrats on the agency’s five-member commission to back the new rules.
Critics argue the Internet is already free and open, and they point out that violations of existing FCC guidelines are rare. They worry that new regulations will harm innovation, raise the cost of operating Internet networks and ultimately lead to higher prices for consumers.
“Nothing is broken in the Internet market that needs fixing,” said Robert McDowell, one of two Republican commissioners who voted against the proposal.
The new rules include notable exceptions. Internet operators can offer different tiers of service — highly prices for faster access — and wireless networks would be more lightly regulated. Companies would also be allowed to exercise “reasonable” network management to ensure smooth flow of Internet traffic.
The FCC vote, however, is unlikely to be the last word on Internet regulation.
Republicans in Congress plan to introduce legislation to roll back the agency’s new rules, and a legal challenge is likely. Federal courts have ruled against the FCC in a number of cases over the past decade and the odds of reversal are high, legal analysts say.
“Attorney are always conservative, but I’d peg the odds at 65 percent,” said Mark McCarty, a partner in the technology group of Alston & Bird. “The FCC is in a tough spot.”
The FCC push to tighten its regulations, in fact, began last spring after a U.S. appeals court ruled that the agency lacked the authority to regulate how Comcast managed its Internet network.
Yet Genachowski’s effort ran into opposition in Congress from both parties. He later scaled back his proposal to win political support and to mollify network operators, who’ve indicated they could accept some restrictions if it put the matter to rest. The battle over Net neutrality has flared up repeatedly over the past decade and it’s been one of the most heavily lobbied issues in Congress.
Some Net neutrality supporters, meanwhile, called the new rules too weak. They plan to continue to press the agency for tougher rules, but with Republicans set to take control of the House of Representatives in January, Genachowski is hardly in position to seek additional regulations.
The FCC’s most immediate concern is to craft new rules that can pass a court challenge and that are clear to understand, such as what constitutes “reasonable” network management.
How network operators ultimately respond will depend on those details, which were not immediately available. It could take months for the FCC to refine its rules and make them public.
Senior AT&T executive Jim Cicconi said the company would have preferred no new regulations, but he credited Genachowski for seeking “a fair middle ground in this contentious debate.”
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