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FCC Promises Rules Meant to Protect Open Internet for Consumers

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Cross-posted from the Digital Education blog

The Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday that it will propose new rules designed to preserve open public access to the Internet, in response to a recent court ruling that raised fears among school officials about whether telecommunications companies could shut down access to valuable Web-based resources.

Last month, a federal appeals court struck a blow against the principle of "net neutrality," or the preservation of a free and accessible Internet, deciding that the FCC's policies overstepped the agency's authority in trying to ensure that unfettered online access was upheld.

Rather than appealing that decision through the courts, FCC officials said they will forge ahead with new rules designed to ensure that operators of various Web sites do not have their content unfairly blocked by Internet service providers, presumably for competitive or other reasons. Those proposed policies will be rolled out through the agency's rulemaking process.

Additionally, the agency said its proposed rules will also seek to prevent discimination against certain content providers, setting clear standards in that area and reviewing them on a "case-by-case basis."

The goal is to establish "workable rules of the road" for preserving an open Internet, policies that will foster a fair marketplace for providers and consumers of online content—and a federal policy that will stand up in court, a senior FCC official told reporters on Wednesday.

The court decision originated from a legal challenge brought by the telecommunications giant Verizon, which had sued to block the FCC's "net neutrality" rules. The court's Jan. 14 ruling against the FCC was widely lamented by consumer advocates and supporters of open online access, including school and library organizations.

Critics of the court's decision have said that telecommuncations providers such as Verizon could conceivably slow the public's access to Web content delivered by companies they view as competitors, or charge more for the delivery of faster content. Doing so, in theory, could hurt schools and libraries by stifling their access to a rich array of online lessons, videos, and other materials, which have become increasingly integral to teaching and learning in K-12 systems today.

Telecommunications providers have argued that net-neutrality policies quash innovation by preventing them from streamlining certain content for delivery. They've also argued that current policies prevent them from being fairly compensated for their costs.

But on Wednesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the language of the court ruling, which was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, had in fact given his agency significant latitude to create a new blueprint for promoting the flow of unrestricted content via the Web.

The court "invited the commission to act to preserve a free and open Internet. I intend to accept that invitation by proposing rules that will meet the court's test for preventing improper blocking of and discrimination among Internet traffic, ensuring genuine transparency in how Internet service providers manage traffic, and enhancing competition," Wheeler said in a statement. "Preserving the Internet as an open platform for innovation and expression while providing certainty and predictability in the marketplace is an important responsibility of this agency."

Wheeler also warned that as the FCC attempts to finalize new policies, it will fight to ensure that Internet service providers do not take steps to squeeze the flow of online content.

"Major Internet service providers have indicated that they will continue to honor the safeguards" established in federal policy, the chairman said. "That's the right and responsible thing to do, and we take them up on their commitment—which will continue to provide protection for the Open Internet until new rules are put in place."

All five members of the FCC are appointed by the president, though no more than three members can belong to any one political party. (President Obama supports net neutrality.)

The two Republicans on the panel, Ajit Pai, and Michael O'Rielly, both issued statements critical of the proposed plan.

Pai alluded to the FCC's recent court defeat and said  the announcement "reminds me of the movie Groundhog Day."

"I am skeptical that this effort will end any differently from the last," Pai said, adding: "The Internet was free and open before the FCC adopted net neutrality rules. It remains free and open today. Net neutrality has always been a solution in search of a problem."

Similarly, O'Rielly said it appears the FCC "is tilting at windmills."

"Instead of fostering investment and innovation through deregulation," he said, "the FCC will be devoting its resources to adopting new rules without any evidence that consumers are unable to access the content of their choice."

Check back on Digital Education for more details on the FCC's plans as they come in.

Updated with comments from Pai and O'Rielly.

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