FCC Approves Net Neutrality Rules Despite Overall Dissatisfaction

Even as the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to approve the order for preserving an open Internet, the commissioners all appeared dissatisfied, saying the rules either didn't go far enough or went too far.

As expected, the Federal Communications Commission adopted the net neutrality regulations in a 3-2 vote at its meeting on Dec. 21. However, it's clear that even amongst the majority, the commissioners were not satisfied with the rules.

The voting followed party lines, with the three Democratic commissioners voting for, and the two Republican commissioners voting against. Robert McDowell, the vocal critic of the proposal, said he was "disappointed," noting that generally "90 percent of the FCC's actions are unanimous and bipartisan."

The order, scheduled to go into effect early next year, gives the federal government formal authority, through the FCC, to regulate Internet traffic, although it is by no means a "final decision," Mike Manzo, chief marketing officer of wireless supplier OpenNet told eWEEK. There is substantial opposition, and either Congress or the courts might overrule the regulations, he said. In fact, hours before the vote, there were reports that Verizon will consider a lawsuit protesting the orders.

Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said lawmakers would "have an opportunity in the new Congress to push back against new rules and regulations."

The order addressed three major issues: transparency, blocking, and discrimination. Fixed-line broadband providers such as Comcast and Qwest will be required to give subscribers information on Internet speeds and service. They are also prohibited from blocking access to sites and applications that can compete against its own products. However, there is clause allowing "reasonable" network management to enable providers to restrict access to sites that could be deemed "harmful."

McDowell noted that "reasonable" has many different definitions.

On forums and chat rooms online, viewers following the FCC open meeting wondered whether access to Wikileaks could be legally restricted under this rule.

The rules "do not guarantee anyone's right to an open Internet or ban paid prioritization" by ISPs, said the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a group that supported the much stronger net neutrality proposal from earlier this year. Even though there was no outright ban, the order contained language discouraging phone and cable companies from offering faster, priority delivery services to Internet companies willing to pay extra.

FCC member Michael Copps would have preferred a flat-out ban on paid prioritization. "I had hoped we would move full throttle," Copps said, referring to some of the watered down elements of the net neutrality rules. He'd seriously considered voting against the measure but decided that if he did, "the wheels of net neutrality would grind to a screeching halt for at least the next two years."