Divided FCC Approves Net Neutrality Rules

The Federal Communications Commission has voted to adopt new rules of the road for the Internet. The 3 to 2 vote follows years of debate over net neutrality — the idea that phone and cable companies that deliver broadband to millions of Americans should treat all of the traffic on their networks equally. Those broadband providers favor less regulation, while technology companies and consumer advocates continue to push for more.

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The Federal Communications Commission has voted to adopt new rules for the Internet. The three-to-two vote follows years of debate over net neutrality - that's the idea that phone and cable companies should treat all traffic on their broadband networks equally.

Those providers favor less regulation, while technology companies and consumer advocates continue to push for more, as Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: No matter where you stand on network neutrality, you will probably find something to dislike in the order the FCC approved today.

Mr. MICHAEL COPPS (Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission): So in my book, today's action could and should have gone further. Going as far as I would have liked was not, however, in the cards.

ROSE: That's FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. For a while, the Democrat had threatened to vote no on the proposed rules.

Mr. COPPS: But it became ever more clear to me that without some action today, the wheels of network neutrality would grind to a screeching halt for at least the next two years.

ROSE: In other words, until the next election. In the end, the FCC did approve rules that prohibit broadband providers from blocking their rivals' websites and services - although the rules are not as strong for wireless networks. And the rules would also discourage those companies from dividing the delivery of Internet traffic into fast and slow lanes.

That struck the two Republicans on the commission - including Robert McDowell - as a major regulatory overreach.

Mr. ROBERT McDOWELL (Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission): The FCC is not only defying a court, but it is circumventing the will of a large bipartisan majority of Congress, as well. Some are saying that instead of acting as a cop on the beat, the FCC looks more like a regulatory vigilante.

ROSE: The FCC's last attempt to enforce net neutrality principles did not go well. In 2007, the commission tried to punish the giant cable and broadband provider Comcast for secretly slowing some traffic on its networks.

But a federal appeals court rejected that ruling earlier this year, sending the FCC back to the drawing board. This time, the commission's chairman tried to craft compromise rules that could attract support from big phone and cable companies and technology companies that depend on unfettered access to consumers.

Mr. STEVE WOZNIAK (Co-founder, Apple): I don't think the rules went far enough in protecting individuals, but I tend to be very much on the side of the small guy, you know, being taken advantage of by the big guy. I feel sorry about them. I feel emotional about that.

ROSE: Steve Wozniak is the co-founder of Apple. He seemed to speak for many in the tech community when he said the new rules won't do enough to protect startups and innovators from anti-competitive behavior by phone and cable companies.

Mr. WOZNIAK: And a lot times when the abuse occurs, they said it hasn't really been abused much. You don't see it. Companies can't start. They can't get an edge.

ROSE: The big phone and cable companies did get some of what they wanted out of the rules - especially AT&T, which pushed hard to make sure that wireless companies have flexibility to manage traffic on their networks.

Public interest groups worry that will leave wireless consumers with fewer protections.

Gigi Sohn is the president of Public Knowledge.

Ms. GIGI SOHN (President, Public Knowledge): People of color, poor people, this is how they're getting their broadband Internet access. They're getting it through wireless. And by setting different standards for wireline and wireless, you're essentially saying we're okay with a two-tiered Internet, and we're going to have a digital divide of a different kind.

ROSE: But FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski defended the compromise rules. He says they'll allow broadband providers and tech companies to invest with certainty.

Mr. JULIUS GENACHOWSKI (Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): And I think we have a strong and balanced order that serves the public interest, serves the economy. I'm very pleased with where it ended up. I think it's a very good day for innovators, for consumers, for the future of the Internet.

ROSE: The FCC rules did get the support of one important Internet user: President Barack Obama. But the rules face hurdles in the other two branches of government: both in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and in court, where one or more angry parties are sure to challenge them.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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