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New Net Neutrality Rules Published, Goes Live November 20

Final rules have been adopted and published for the Federal Communications Commission Net Neutrality policy, which goes into effect Nov. 20.

The rules are intended to provide certainty and predictability to all Internet stakeholders, including content and service providers as well as consumers. They are the result of an effort to bring government policy into line with the open technology that has allowed the Internet to develop rapidly.

The underlying principles of the FCC Net Neutrality rules are as follows:

  • Transparency: Fixed and mobile broadband providers must disclose the network management practices, performance characteristics and commercial terms of their broadband services.
  • No blocking: Fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices; mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services.
  • No unreasonable discrimination: Fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.

"We believe these rules, applied with the complementary principle of reasonable network management, will empower and protect consumers and innovators while helping ensure that the Internet continues to flourish, with robust private investment and rapid innovation at both the core and the edge of the network," the commission said in its report and order implementing the rules.

The rules, which implement principles laid out in the FCC's 2005 Internet Policy Statement, were adopted and released in December 2010 in a three-to-two vote, without support of Republican commissioners.

Supporters of net neutrality say the policy ensures that carriers, which increasingly also are content providers with a financial interest in their customers' traffic, do not discriminate against competitors by blocking access to competing content. Industry groups have opposed the policy as a threat to technological innovation and their ability to control their infrastructures.

The formal rules were created and adopted because the FCC did not have the authority to enforce the principles of its Internet Policy Statement.

In 2008, the commission found that Comcast had disrupted some peer-to-peer traffic without a good reason and without disclosing its actions, and ordered the company to stop the practices. But the D.C. Circuit Appeals Court ruled the commission did not have the authority to regulate network management practices.

"Those who favor inaction contend that the Internet generally is open today and is likely to remain so, and express concern that rules aimed at preventing harms may themselves impose significant costs," the FCC said in its report. But similar traffic control practices by carriers blocking access to some content and services have continued, the commission found, and the formal rule-making process for the net neutrality principles began in 2008.

The FCC concluded that the rules would not be burdensome. "We expect the costs of compliance with our prophylactic rules to be small, as they incorporate longstanding openness principles that are generally in line with current practices and with norms endorsed by many broadband providers," it stated in its report.

On the other hand, "the harms that could result from threats to openness are significant and likely irreversible."

The commission called the rules "carefully calibrated to preserve the benefits of the open Internet and increase certainty for all Internet stakeholders, with minimal burden on broadband providers."

Wireless mobile service, although it is becoming more common, remains an unknown quantity in the FCC's regulatory equation.

"The roll-out of next generation mobile services is at an early stage, and the future of competition in residential broadband is unclear," the commission said in its report and order. "We conclude that it is appropriate at this time to take measured steps in this area."

The rules for fixed and mobile carriers largely overlap, with some differences in the prohibitions on blocking sites and services.

Mobile broadband providers must comply with the transparency rule, which includes obligations to disclose the carrier's rules on its device and application certification and approval processes. They are prohibited from blocking lawful websites and from blocking competing applications for voice and video telephony services.

"We will closely monitor the development of the mobile broadband market and will adjust the framework we adopt in this order as appropriate," the FCC said.

To help keep tabs on how carriers are living up to the requirements of Net Neutrality, the FCC in January announced the Open Internet Apps Challenge. In August, the commission selected a project from a team from the University of Michigan and Microsoft as the winning application. MobiPerf, an app for Android and iOS platforms, allows users to get basic information on throughput speeds and identifies traffic management practices such as blocking of ports or applications.

Teams from Georgia Tech's School of Computer Science and the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley were recognized for research on ways to identify traffic management techniques.

Also in August, security researcher Dan Kaminsky, working outside the FCC challenge, announced availability of N00ter, a Neutrality Router that allows normalized traffic from any site to be sent to the user over the same Internet route so that performance can be evaluated for ISP bias.

About the Author

William Jackson is the senior writer for Government Computer News (GCN.com).

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