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FCC Chairman Signals Strong Backing for ‘Open Internet’

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski outlined broad and explicit guidelines to internet service providers in a speech Monday during a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He said his agency must act affirmatively to preserve an open Internet.

“Saying nothing — and doing nothing — would impose its own form of unacceptable cost,” Genachowski said. “It would deprive innovators and investors of confidence that the free and open Internet we depend upon today will still be here tomorrow.”

At issue is whether Internet providers can treat broadband connections as private toll roads, selling higher speed to companies that pay for premium service. Referring to his predecessor’s Four Freedoms [PDF] framework outlined in 2004, Genachowski added two more: non-discrimination and transparency.

The rules must get approval from the FCC’s board, but as so-called “net neutrality” watchers noted in anticipation of his speech, three out of five members have already voiced support for similar principles.

Watch video of Genachowski’s speech here.

Under Genachowski’s strategy, broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications, block or degrade lawful traffic on their networks “or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others in the connection to subscribers’ homes.” Nor can providers block or slow sites they compete with, such as Web-based news, music or video.

On transparency, Genachowski added:

“We cannot afford to rely on happenstance for consumers, businesses, and policymakers to learn about changes to the basic functioning of the Internet. Greater transparency will give consumers the confidence of knowing that they’re getting the service they’ve paid for, enable innovators to make their offerings work effectively over the Internet, and allow policymakers to ensure that broadband providers are preserving the Internet as a level playing field.”

Genachowski stressed in his speech that efforts to sell faster or better access is a symptom of inevitable tensions built into our system,” not the ill will or simple greed of providers, and said his goal was to maintain the openness that has driven decades of innovation on the internet.

“This is not about government regulation of the Internet,” the FCC chairman said. It’s about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet. We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity.”

With the new policy came a new Web site: OpenInternet.gov. The site is sparse for now, but it does offer users a chance to comment on the policy and links to other FCC efforts, including a blog dedicated to expanding broadband access.

Companies’ reactions to Genachowski’s speech were swift and fell mostly along party lines, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Consumer groups and Internet companies like Amazon and Google were thrilled. Comcast, AT&T and other Internet providers fell much (much) farther down the happy scale,” the newspaper noted.

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