FTC chairman: Agency may enforce net neutrality

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Federal Trade Commission may start enforcing net-neutrality rules and take action against bad network management practices when broadband providers don’t live up to the promises they make to consumers, the agency’s chairman said.

Broadband providers need to inform consumers about the download speeds they’re delivering and the types of network management practices they’re deploying, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said on the C-SPAN network’s program, The Communicators, which aired May 8.

If a broadband provider blocks Web content that competes with its own content or a partner’s content, that could also raise “antitrust problems,” potentially prompting FTC action, said Leibowitz, appointed chairman in March after for more than four years on the commission.

“We believe consumers need to have notice and consent about what they’re getting,” Leibowitz said. “It’s very, very important that these providers tell consumers about the speed they’re getting, and whether [providers] are making any types of management decisions in terms of the network that affect consumers.”

Program host Peter Slen asked Leibowitz whether it was fair for broadband providers to charge customers more for higher speeds or charge more for high-bandwidth users. Leibowitz said those were fair practices, as long as providers gave customers notice.

“You can’t surprise someone with a bill that’s like 10 times as much as what they expected,” he said.

Leibowitz’s view on the FTC role on net neutrality and network management issues would mark a change for the agency. Until now, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has handled any net-neutrality complaints, and in mid-2007, the FTC issued a report suggesting U.S. lawmakers should proceed with caution before passing new net-neutrality rules.

Asked about the change of attitude, Leibowitz said net neutrality is a consumer protection issue, and consumer protection is one of the main functions of the FTC.

“In a perfect marketplace where you had more competitors, you wouldn’t need the government necessarily to be terribly involved,” he said. “Particularly in the consumer protection area, we have a big roll to play. Broadband is a deregulated product. That’s good, we like deregulation generally. But when you have deregulation, you also law enforcement to make sure people do the right thing.”

Leibowitz also said he hopes people on both sides of the net-neutrality debate can come to comprise agreement about consumers’ right to the Web content of their choosing. Groups on both sides seem to be “heading in the right direction,” he said.

A spokeswoman from Comcast, one of the largest broadband providers in the U.S., didn’t have a comment on Leibowitz’s statements on net neutrality. Spokespeople from Verizon and AT&T didn’t immediately respond to a request for comments. The FCC, in August 2008, ruled that Comcast could not slow some peer-to-peer traffic in the name of network management.

Comcast’s network management practices violated an FCC policy statement saying broadband customers had a right to access the legal Web content of their choice, the FCC ruled.

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