US plan would regulate Internet as public utility

[WASHINGTON] The top US telecom regulator announced on Wednesday he would propose to regulate the Internet as a public utility, as part of a renewed effort to enforce "net neutrality" rules.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled the plan which aims to prevent Internet providers from playing favourites or blocking some services or allowing others to pay for "fast lanes."

The new proposal comes a year after a federal court struck down the FCC neutrality rules, saying it lacked the authority because Internet providers were not "common carriers" under US telecom law.

The plan, which is expected to unleash a fresh legal and political battle, aims to resolve the impasse by reclassifying Internet service providers as regulated entities under the 1934 Telecommunications Act.

"The Internet must be fast, fair and open," Mr Wheeler said in an essay in Wired magazine.

"That is the message I've heard from consumers and innovators across this nation. That is the principle that has enabled the Internet to become an unprecedented platform for innovation and human expression."

Mr Wheeler said his plan, to be submitted to the five-member commission for a vote later this month, would call for "the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC." He would ban "paid prioritisation," which would allow services to pay for faster connections, as well as "blocking and throttling of lawful content and services."

Mr Wheeler said he would apply the rules to the mobile Internet for the first time as well.

"My proposal assures the rights of Internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone's permission." Critics of the approach argue that the 1930s-style regulation would choke off investment in the Internet and stifle innovation.

Wheeler said, however, that he would use only portions of the "Title II" regulation, "tailoring it for the 21st century, in order to provide returns necessary to construct competitive networks." He pledged "no rate regulation" or tariffs and said his plans "can encourage investment and competition." The "neutrality" rules aim to ensure that all services have equal access to the Internet, so that a provider such as Verizon or AT&T could not block a service such as Netflix and favor a rival like Hulu.

Reaction to the plan, speculation about which has been swirling for days, was swift.

Doug Brake at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the plan was "an unjustified, overblown response to what has in actuality been a by-and-large hypothetical concern." Mr Brake said the plan represents "a strong shift towards a European-style, precautionary regulation" and that it would "Balkanize the Internet into distinct private networks and specialized services."

But Alan Davidson at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute welcomed the move, saying it "would protect the free and open Internet for a next generation of broadband Internet users."


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