FCC Warming to Network Neutrality


Network neutrality -- the notion that cable shouldn’t use network control to choke the flow of rival Internet services -- got a pat on the back Friday from the Federal Communications Commission. But the agency didn’t give it a full bear hug.

As part of the ruling deregulating the Baby Bells on digital-subscriber-line service, the FCC issued a companion “policy statement” warning cable and phone companies not to interpret lack of government oversight as an invitation to crush Web merchants that lack wireline connections to millions of homes.

But the policy statement was nonbinding because it remained unclear whether the agency has legal authority to enforce conduct rules on cable and phone companies that provide non-common-carrier services.

“These principles are a statement of what’s important to the commissioners as it relates to Internet policy. They are not rules. They are not enforceable via an enforcement action by this commission,” said Thomas Navin, chief of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau.

In the absence of the rules, the FCC said it backed the following four principles:

• Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.

• Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.

• Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.

• Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, applications and service providers and content providers.

For at least two years, Amazon.com Inc. (www.amazon.com), Yahoo! Inc. (www.yahoo.com), Google Inc. (www.google.com), InterActiveCorp, eBay Inc. (www.ebay.com) and Microsoft Corp. have pressured the FCC to adopt network-neutrality rules. Former FCC chairman Michael Powell offered rhetorical support in a February 2004 speech, but he did not craft any rules.

Amazon.com vice president for global public policy Paul Misener said the FCC has put cable and phone companies on notice about discrimination, but tougher action might be necessary.

“In order to better protect this important consumer right of unfettered access to lawful Internet content, we believe Congress should take the next step and enact additional safeguards,” he added.