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The proposals comes a month after a US court ruled the agency had over-reached in its powers. “Preserving the Internet as an open platform for innovation and expression while providing certainty and predictability in the marketplace is an important responsibility of this agency,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said.
With the latest plan, the FCC is keeping close to previous efforts — albeit with some technical differences — with rules that would prevent Internet service providers from blocking any legal sites or services from consumers and would aim to restrict, but not outlaw, discrimination.
Broadband players like Verizon and Time Warner Cable have spent billions of dollars upgrading their infrastructure, and they argue that they should manage their networks as they like. They are pushing, for example, to give Netflix, Amazon and other content providers faster access to their customers at a cost.
But regulators want to prevent such deals, saying large, rich companies could have an unfair advantage. The worry is that innovation could be stifled, preventing the next Facebook or Google from getting off the ground. Consumer advocates have sided with regulators in the belief that Internet providers should not give preferential treatment to content companies willing to pay extra — a cost that could be passed on to customers.
Wheeler, who took over the FCC in November, has made net neutrality a core issue for the agency. Under the latest proposal Wheeler said that broadband companies would be subject to strict requirements to disclose their practices and would face greater enforcement efforts if they strayed from their promises.
Two previous efforts were thrown out by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the first in a 2010 case filed by Comcast. Despite the ruling, Comcast agreed to follow the rules as a condition of its purchase of NBCUniversal. Comcast said last week that this agreement would extend to its purchase of Time Warner Cable.
In another case, brought by Verizon, a federal appeals court ruled last month that a similar set of the FCC’s rules illegally treated Internet service providers as regulated utilities, like telephone companies. But the court said that the commission did have authority to oversee Internet service in ways that encourage competition.
In essence, that ruling expanded the commission’s oversight, prompting the regulator to introduce the latest plan. The main differences with the latest rules are technical, rather than substantive. In a strictly legal sense, the FCC will cite another part of the law — Section 706 of the Communications Act — for its authority. Some of the rules would also be enforced case-by-case, avoiding a “bright line” regulation that the court said was so strict that it treated broadband companies like regulated telephone service.
The FCC will not seek to immediately reclassify Internet service as a telecommunications service, subject to rate regulation and other oversight. Wheeler said that the commission would retain the right to do so, however, if its new rules were approved and did not appear to be working adequately. The commission also said it would not appeal the January court ruling.