Net neutrality still faces political, legal hurdles

Net neutrality supporters may be celebrating the Federal Communications Commission’s unanimous vote Thursday to begin developing open Internet regulation, but the battle is far from over as the yet-to-be-written regulation is already facing Congressional opposition and will also likely be challenged in court.

Votes at the FCC for the proposal to get the ball rolling on new rules to protect an open Internet hadn’t even been cast when Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation on Thursday morning that would block the agency from regulating the Internet. McCain said that Net neutrality rules would stifle innovation and hurt the job market.

“Today I’m pleased to introduce the Internet Freedom Act of 2009 that will keep the Internet free from government control and regulation,” McCain said in a statement. “It will allow for continued innovation that will in turn create more high-paying jobs for the millions of Americans who are out of work or seeking new employment. Keeping businesses free from oppressive regulations is the best stimulus for the current economy.”

The FCC voted unanimously Thursday on a proposal that would start the process for creating regulation that will keep the Internet open. The proposal itself uses the FCC’s open Internet principles as a foundation and would forbid network operators from restricting access to lawful Internet content, applications, and services. It would also require network providers to allow customers to attach nonharmful devices to the network.

Two additional principles were added, which would prevent network providers from discriminating against particular Internet content or applications, while at the same time allowing for reasonable network management. Internet access providers would also have to be transparent about the network management practices they implement.

All five commissioners voted in favor of advancing the rule-making process with the two Republicans, Meredith Attwell Baker and Robert McDowell, dissenting in part.

Ongoing debate
The so-called Net neutrality debate has pitted Internet application companies, such as Google, Facebook and Skype, against big broadband providers, such as AT&T, Verizon Communications, and Comcast. The network operators argue regulation will stifle innovation, while the Internet companies say an unfettered network is necessary to encourage innovation.

Congress has been interested off and on in this issue for about three years. But it has never gained much support, and at least five bills that would enact Net neutrality regulation have failed.

The issue seemed to die out completely after the FCC publicly admonished Comcast for violating its open Internet principles, which were adopted in 2005. The official slap on the wrist and the public outcry resulted in Comcast changing its practices. For many in the industry, it seemed the FCC’s handling of the situation was sufficient.

The issue was revived last year during the U.S. presidential campaign when then-candidate Barack Obama said he’d support Net neutrality regulation and laws. Now that he is president, his supporters are holding him to his promise.