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FCC Delays Net Neutrality Action

The Federal Communications Commission has decided to postpone making a decision on net neutrality and how Internet service providers should (or should not) be required to provide transparent, non-discriminatory access to users, opting instead to seek further public comment—which really means input from industry and interest groups. The agency has been working with these same industry representatives and interest groups for months in an effort to reach some sort of compromise framework, only to call off meetings last month in the wake of a regulatory proposal co-authored by Google and Verizon.

The debate over net neutrality has heightened after a court ruling earlier this year that gutted the FCC’s ability to enforce its four principles of Internet freedom. Since then, the FCC has been working with industry on a proposal to establish a new regulatory framework that would ensconce the original four principles with the force of law, and add two new additional principles of non-discriminatory access to lawful services and applications, as well as a transparency requirement that network management practices be fully transparent to consumers. However, talks have hung up over mobile services: in a nutshell, mobile operators want to be able to control what applications can run on their mobile networks.

“Recent events have highlighted questions on how open Internet rules should apply to ‘specialized’ services and to mobile broadband—what framework will guarantee Internet freedom and openness, and maximize private investment and innovation,” wrote FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, in a statement (PDF). “As we’ve seen, the issues are complex, and the details matter.”

Industry watchers note that the FCC is likely to tread lightly on net neutrality issues in the lead up to November mid-term elections, with Democrats concerned any policy proposals will be painted as an attempt to regulate the Internet and stifle innovation. Consumer groups, conversely, argue that now that the FCC’s regulatory proposal has been rendered unenforceable, consumers have essentially no protections from ISPs who want to engage in predatory or discriminatory practices—something that’s particularly troublesome since many providers enjoy monopolies on broadband access in many areas.

Google and Verizon’s regulatory proposal would eschew openness requirements on mobile networks, and permit ISPs to create specialized services separate from the “public Internet” for which they could charge premium rates and be free from openness requirements.