The FCC’s new traffic management rules forbid wireline providers from discriminating in content. Unlike Canada, however, wireless providers remain unregulated

US regulator partly follows Canada on net neutrality

The U.S. regulator of telecommunications has adopted Internet neutrality rules allowing traffic management that in some ways look remarkably like those of Canada.

 

In a 3-2 decision on Tuesday, members of the Federal Communications Commission adopted rules forbidding wireline broadband providers from engaging in “unreasonable discrimination” in the way they give subscribers access to legal Web content.

That’s similar to wording the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications (CRCT) used in 2009 when it said providers can’t be “unjustly discriminatory nor unduly preferential.” One big difference is that the CRTC has a big stick – the non-discrimination rule is backed by federal law, the Telecommunications Act, which for years has prohibited carriers from discriminating in the delivery of services.  The act gives the commission clear authority to regulate carriers.
[Read the entire CRTC decision here]

Also like the CRTC policy, the FCC says American wireline Internet providers must spell out to subscribers details of their traffic management rules.

However, unlike Canada, the FCC has given wireless carriers a pass. It won’t prohibit them from giving preferential access to certain Web sites on mobile devices. However, it did warn the industry it will be watching for evidence of problems.

The FCC says mobile providers can’t block voice and other applications that compete with their services. But the regulator won’t stop them from blocking other applications.

The head of a media reform group complained this means a wireless carrier can block subscribers’ access to third-party applications and force them to use only the carriers’ appls

In Canada, carriers tried earlier this year to persuade the CRTC to continue keeping its hands off wireless. But the commission decided in June wireless operators should have to stick to the same rules as wireline providers.So far no one has challenged the CRTC’s framework.

However, the FCC ruling was denounced by many consumer groups, who called the new regulations weak and full of loopholes.

The National Journal reported that Verizon Communications was considering going to court over the new rules. Tom Tauke, the carrier’s executive vice-president of public affairs and policy wouldn’t comment on that. However, he did complain that the FCC appeared to be claiming broad new regulatory powers over the Internet.. “This assertion of authority without solid statutory underpinnings will yield continued uncertainty for industry, innovators, and investors. In the long run, that is harmful to consumers and the nation.”

The FCC rules came after more than seven years of debate in the U.S. about whether net neutrality rules are needed. They were approved in a 3-2 party-line vote, with both of the commission’s Republicans voting against the proposal

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a Democrat, called the rules “strong and balanced.”

“As we stand here now [without the rules], the freedom and openness of the Internet are unprotected,” he said. “No rules on the books to protect basic Internet values. No process for monitoring Internet openness as technology and business models evolve. No recourse for innovators, consumers, or speakers harmed by improper practices. And no predictability for Internet service providers, so that they can effectively manage and invest in broadband networks.

Critics on the other side of the net neutrality debate, including Commissioner Robert McDowell, ripped the action as unnecessary and legally dubious. The new order is an attempt to circumvent an April ruling by a U.S. appeals court striking down an FCC effort to enforce informal net neutrality principles, he said.

“This new effort will fail in court as well,” McDowell said. The rules adopted Tuesday will be “tied up in courts for years,” he predicted.

Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, said he voted for the rules with reservations. Copps wanted broadband reclassified as a regulated, common-carrier service with more protections for mobile customers, but the FCC has improved the rules since Genachowski first proposed them in early December, he said.

The new version of the rules provide net neutrality protections for schools, libraries and small businesses, and not just consumers, Copps said. The new version also calls paid prioritization of Web content unreasonable discrimination that’s prohibited for wire-based providers, he added.

Without action Tuesday, “the wheels of net neutrality would grind to a halt for at least two years,” Copps said.

The new rules “fell far short” of what the FCC could have accomplished, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a U.S. digital rights group in favor of strong rules.

“The commission could have established clear rules that would give more protections to Internet users than the one approved today,” she said in a statement. “Instead, these rules will be subject to manipulation by telephone and cable companies. The commission will have to be very serious about the enforcement of these rules in order for them to succeed.”

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights group, and the Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade group representing broadband providers, both praised the decision. The FCC showed restraint by not reclassifying broadband as a regulated service under Title II of the U.S. Telecommunications Act, the TIA said.

Craig Aaron, managing director of Free Press, a media reform group, complained the FCC rules will allow broadband providers to divide the Internet into fast and slow lanes.

(With files from Washington by Grant Gross, IDG News)

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