The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 on to issue an order imposing regulatory controls on the Internet. The ruling concerns a network management technique used by Comcast for its high-speed Internet service that had the effect of giving slightly lower priority to some peer-to-peer (P2P) upload sessions so that the latency-sensitive applications of the vast majority of its Internet customers would remain uninterrupted. The Commission ruled that the practice—which Comcast previously announced would be phased out this year—violated the Commission’s “network neutrality” policy guidelines and amounted to discriminatory “blocking” and “monitoring” of Internet content, as well as “interference” with consumers’ “right to access” lawful Internet content. While not fining Comcast, the Commission instead orders Comcast to report on the technique, submit a compliance plan for terminating it by year-end, and describe to the FCC and the public the specifics of what new management techniques will be implemented. Noncompliance, warns the Commission, will be subject to future injunctive relief and additional enforcement actions. Additional details of the FCC’s announcement, and specific concerns about this ruling, can be found in our firm’s advisory bulletin about this decision. The Press Release on the FCC action can be found here.
While the full text of this decision is not yet available, the New York Times ran a story summarizing its effects. The statements of the Commissioners on this decision are also available. The dissents approach the issues from somewhat different perspectives. Both express the hope that these kinds of objections could have been resolved by industry organizations – Commissioner McDowell’s statement going into great detail about the lack of notice and precedent for the decision, and the potential impact that the decision will have on network management practices and voluntary decisions of Internet management organizations. Commissioner Tate raises questions of what the decision will do to attempts to design technological systems that can sniff out adult content for purposes of protecting children from such content. It’s interesting that the FCC’s own proposed rules for portions of the 700 mhz band include such requirements for the monitoring of adult content.
Slowly, inextricably, the FCC seems to be being dragged into Internet regulation. We’ve written about the recent proposals in Congress to extend FCC closed captioning rules to the Internet. We’ve also written about the proposals to involve the FCC in Internet radio rate setting. As Internet delivery of content becomes more and more prevalent, will the Internet become, like the rest of the Communications world, subject to a pervasive scheme of regulation? With each passing decision, that seems to become more likely.