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Outside editorial: FCC's goal: An open and vibrant Internet

Posted: November 9, 2011 - 12:00am

The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

The fight over the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules is often billed as a battle over whether to regulate the Internet. In reality, it’s more of a debate over how to preserve the Web’s defining features. Opponents say the rules, which are slated to take effect Nov. 20, will stifle the investment and innovation that have characterized the Internet since its inception. Proponents say the opposite, arguing that the rules deter service providers from turning the innovative, vibrant online world into a cable-TV-like service dominated by powerful commercial interests.

The debate is expected to reach the Senate floor soon, as Republicans push a resolution to overturn the commission’s action. That would be a mistake. The agency’s rules are a reasonable attempt to protect the open and freewheeling nature of the Internet, and lawmakers should leave them in place.

At stake is how much freedom Internet service providers — typically, local phone and cable TV companies such as AT&T and Comcast — have to prioritize the data traveling over their networks. Proponents of net neutrality fear that ISPs will offer favorable treatment to sites willing to pay a premium for it, or that they’ll hobble their competitors’ traffic. If that were to happen, upstarts and nonprofits would find it hard to compete with deep-pocketed rivals, which would pay ISPs to make their virtual wares more prominent and compelling.

In December, the commission adopted a few broad rules that apply only to the Internet’s on-ramps, not to the sites that make up the Internet. Those rules, which largely exempt mobile networks, require broadband ISPs to disclose more about their networks, and bar them from discriminating unreasonably against lawful sites and services. The agency didn’t specify what sorts of techniques would be unreasonable; instead, it will make those decisions as complaints come in. That flexibility disappointed some net neutrality advocates, but it’s pragmatic in light of how rapidly technology changes.

Because there have been only a few instances of ISPs improperly interfering with data, the commission’s critics say the neutrality rules needlessly target a nonexistent problem. But a court ruling last year made it clear that without formal rules, the commission cannot stop ISPs from even egregious acts of favoritism and interference. As bandwidth-hogging video sites and services proliferate online, broadband providers will have a growing financial incentive to make sites pay more to reach their customers. And with most consumers having few options for broadband, there’s not enough competition to hold ISPs in check.

Those options will expand if Congress ever manages to provide spectrum for new wireless broadband services. Until then, however, the commission’s rules would do more to preserve innovation and openness on the Internet than would a resolution that ties its hands.

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