What the new FCC open Internet rules could mean for net neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules for regulating Internet access at a hearing today in Washington. After FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn said yesterday they will not stand in the way of Chairman Julius Genachowski’s modified order, it paved the way for a 3-2 vote to approve new rules of the road for the Internet. The tech policy reporters at Politico made the following assessment of the rules in their excellent Morning Tech newsletter this morning and got it about right.

1) Transparency for both wireline and wireless services, requiring disclosure to consumers, content and device providers,
2) Wireline providers are prohibited from blocking any lawful content, apps, services or devices; wireless providers, from blocking websites and competing telephony services, 3) Wireline providers are prohibited from unreasonably discriminating against any traffic (but no such rule for wireless). Paid prioritization is not explicitly banned, though any such regime would likely raise red flags for the commission under the “no unreasonable discrimination” test. That will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Below are key excerpts from the report and order the FCC voted on yesterday. (The full order still hasn’t been released to the public; more on that later in this post.)

Rule 1: Transparency

A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service shall publicly disclose accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of such services and for content, application, service, and device providers to develop, market, and maintain Internet offerings.

Rule 2: No Blocking

A person engaged in the provision of fixed broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices, subject to reasonable network management.

A person engaged in the provision of mobile broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not block consumers from accessing lawful websites, subject to reasonable network management; nor shall such person block applications that compete with the provider’s voice or video telephony services, subject to reasonable network

Rule 3: No Unreasonable Discrimination

A person engaged in the provision of fixed broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic over a consumer’s broadband Internet access service.  Reasonable network management shall not constitute unreasonable discrimination.

Wired’s Sam Gustin may have the best one sentence summary of what the FCC compromise will mean:

The three new rules, which will go into effect early next year, force ISPs to be transparent about how they handle network congestion, prohibit them from blocking traffic such as Skype on wired networks, and outlaw “unreasonable” discrimination on those networks, meaning they can’t put a competing online video service in the slow lane to benefit their own video services.

As Politico reported, these are widely regarded as the first enforceable net neutrality rules. The compromise they have produced widespread reaction on both sides of the issue. As Brian Stelter reported for the New York Times, the new FCC net neutrality rules are going down well with anyone interested in the issue.

The debate over the rules, intended to preserve open access to the Internet, seems to have resulted in a classic Washington solution — the kind that pleases no one on either side of the issue. Verizon and other service providers would prefer no government involvement. Public interest advocates think the rules stop far short of ensuring free speech. Some Republicans believe the rules are another instance of government overreach.

Nancy Scola posted a typically thoughtful analysis of what the FCC did to net neutrality today. The whole thing is worth reading but there are two key grafs:

…for sure, some of the provisions in this proposal do seem designed to be responsive to industry worries that don’t seem to have actually been justified in the record. But looking at this whole debate, it starts to look much bigger than Genachowski, and much like we’ve reached the point to where any sort of meaningful incursion onto the corporate right to influence and even dominate the Internet would seem like a downright radical act of political bravery. That’s a reality of the U.S. communications landscape, circa 2010. That we’re debating just how powerful a say telecom company’s should have over how the Internet works is a sign of how the Internet has, as a medium, shifted since its earlier days.

Writing for Wired in 2005, Kevin Kelly recalled how one of the early debates in the Internet’s evolution was whether or not to allow any sort of commerce at all on the activity layer of the Internet. (That is, e-commerce websites and the like.) “It’s hard to believe now,” writes Kelly, “but until 1991, commercial enterprise on the Internet was strictly prohibited.” The idea that the Internet should be so pure probably seems laughable to many of us now. Watching the net neutrality process unfold at the FCC and on Capitol Hill over the last many months has made clear that the reality is that, very quickly, corporate interests have acquired such a level of influence over the evolution of the Internet where the debate can sometimes seem to be far more concerned with their interests than the public interest.

The Center for Democracy & Technology released the following statement in response to the Federal Communications Commission vote to approve a set of “rules of the road” for preserving the open nature of the Internet.

“The Commission took a vital first step today by voting to adopt rules designed to sustain the open nature of the Internet,” said CDT President Leslie Harris. “The Internet is and should remain a place where innovators and upstarts can experiment and thrive, without needing to seek permission or approval from established network operators,” she said. “Today, after a long debate, the FCC affirms that it can and will play a crucial role in protecting that open environment.”

“This is a big day, but the true test of these rules will depend on how they are implemented and interpreted over time,” said CDT Senior Policy Counsel David Sohn. “It appears the rules will leave a number of important open questions, including how the FCC will approach openness for wireless. Ultimately, the kind of Internet users get should not depend on whether they happen to access it via a wireline or wireless connection.”

“To be sure, there is more to be done,” Harris said. “But this is how we make progress on policy, one step at a time, each step building on the one before it. This isn’t the end of the Internet neutrality debate, it’s just the end of the beginning.”

The Washington Post’s Cecilia Kang, who reported live all day on the FCC’s new neutrality rules, went on the PBS News Hour to talk about the new rules tonight:

The FCC’s press release follows. Look for the tech journalism community to be teasing more details from this over the coming days, including mentions of Android and how the FCC will handle the app stores

FCC Press Release 12-12-2010 Open Internet

The meeting was livestreamed at FCC.gov/live. An archive of the liveblog on this post embedded below; the FCC itself liveblogged the meeting at Blog.OpenInternet.gov.

A note on transparency

Before the hearing, another writer approached me for my thoughts on how transparency played into today’s hearing. Amy Gahran considered why the FCC ‘net neutrality’ rule was still secret at CNN.com today. While she included most of my statement, here’s the full version:

Chairman Genachowski made a commitment to a more open, transparent and data-driven F.C.C. under President Obama’s Open Government Directive. In many respects, in its first year of open government, the agency made commendable progress, with strides towards taking public comment through e-rulemaking at OpenInternet.gov, Broadband.gov and Reboot.FCC.gov. The sites were deployed by an able new media team that has used online communications in unprecedented ways. The chairman and his managing director, Steven Van Roeckel, both deserve credit for their plans to reboot FCC.gov as a platform for government including the use of APIs and open source technologies like Drupal.

That said, when it comes to the question of whether the public has a right to see the net neutrality proposal before the commissioners vote upon it, however, the agency has fallen short of its transparency pledge. I have not found a legal precedent that explicitly gives the agency authority to keep the text of a proposed rule secret until it is voted upon by the Commission. While it is true that conversely the F.C.C. does not appear to be under no legal obligation to do so, given that the members of the commission presumably had to negotiate on the details of the final rules for vote, the decision not to share a version publicly may have made such discussion more flexible. That said, the choice not to post the proposed rules online before the vote is an example less government transparency in the creation of important regulation, not more.

UPDATE: Ryan Singel obtained and posted the following snippets of what looks like the new open Internet rules, below:
Net Neutrality Order Snippets

UPDATE: The New York Times Brian Stelter obtained a copy of FCC Chairman Genachowski’s remarks. They are embedded below. His initial coverage of the FCC net neutrality rules remains some of the best online.
Net neutrality statement by Julius Genachowski, the FCC chair, on Dec. 21, 2010

UPDATE: Here are all five prepared statements from the FCC commissioners, as posted on FCC.gov as PDFs.

Copps Statement

Clyburn Statement

Genachowski Statement

McDowell Statement

Baker Statement

UPDATE: The FCC released the full version of the new open Internet rules online on the Friday before Christmas.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.