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FCC Comes Closer to Determining New Net Neutrality Principles, Businesses Worry

FCC Comes Closer to Determining New Net Neutrality Principles, Businesses Worry

WASHINGTON – The federal government this week is stepping squarely into a high-stakes technology battle with this seemingly straightforward question at its core: Should Internet providers such as Comcast and AT&T be allowed to control what you do online once you buy access to their networks?

If the answer seems obvious _ of course they shouldn’t _ the debate hardly ends there. What if your activity online hogs so much bandwidth, like watching TV or downloading movies, that it slows your neighbor’s Internet speed to a crawl?

Or what if the application you’re using undercuts the Internet provider’s business model? One example: Should AT&T be allowed to stop you from making free calls over the iPhone data network, bypassing the company’s lucrative cell phone network?

Those are the kinds of vexing issues at play as the Federal Communications Commission assumes an enhanced role as Internet traffic cop. The goal, according to the commission’s new chairman, Democrat Julius Genachowski, is to keep the Internet as open and accessible as possible for consumers and innovators.

“It’s about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet,” Genachowski said in a recent speech. “This is about preserving and maintaining something profoundly successful and ensuring that it’s not distorted or undermined.”

But in pursuing that aim, the FCC is thrusting itself into a real-world business clash between some of the nation’s fastest-evolving industries, raising questions about the appropriate level of government regulation.

On Thursday, the five-member commission is expected to vote to take an initial step toward adopting so-called “net neutrality” rules, siding with top Silicon Valley content providers such as Google and Yahoo (which benefit from open, unnegotiated access to the Internet to promote their services) over telecommunications giants including AT&T and Verizon (which argue that they should maintain control over their networks after investing billions of dollars in them). In a significant shift, the rules would extend beyond wired broadband networks to the realm of wireless networks.

The debate reflects, in part, a philosophical divide over whether the Internet is predominantly a public forum or a commercial enterprise. Genachowski argues that it’s the former, and he wants to put the legal onus on Internet service providers to defend any move to block access to an application in the name of keeping their networks unclogged.