The new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission picked his first official fight Monday, and it’s a doozy. Four decades after engineers at UCLA demonstrated a rudimentary version of the Internet, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to develop new rules limiting what Internet service providers can do to the data traveling through their networks. His proposal drew polite but firm opposition from the phone and cable TV companies that are the dominant providers of broadband connections, which warned that such rules could chill innovation online. We agree that the commission will need to proceed carefully, but we also believe that the right set of so-called Net neutrality rules would promote even more growth and innovation.
At the heart of the issue is how broadband ISPs deal with congestion caused by the increasing amount of online video and other bandwidth-heavy applications. Advocates of Net neutrality worry that ISPs will offer selected websites and services a route around congestion for a fee -- and in the process, pick winners and sap the creative energy that has made the Net a breeding ground for new businesses.
The FCC took a tentative stab at the issue in 2004, when then-Chairman Michael Powell announced four crucial “Internet Freedoms”: the ability of Internet users to access any legal content, software or services online, and to connect to the Net through any compatible device. Genachowski laid out two more: Broadband providers should not discriminate against particular websites or applications, nor conceal how they manage data. He also said that the commission should translate these principles into formal rules rather than leaving them in legal limbo.
Lobbyists for phone and cable TV companies argue that there’s little evidence of ISPs playing unfairly or violating Powell’s four freedoms. Yet when the FCC moved to stop Comcast from surreptitiously interfering with a legal file-sharing application last year, Comcast sued, claiming the commission had no power to enforce the principles. It’s paradoxical that the government should have to regulate the Internet to preserve its unregulated essence. But with so little competition in broadband service, the major phone and cable companies have the power and the incentive to stop worthy but disruptive innovations in the name of “managing congestion.” The FCC should set clear rules that enable ISPs to keep data flowing from all legal services and applications, not just favored ones.