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FCC chairman Julius Genachowski is extending net neutrality rules to wireless devices. ((Harry Hamburg/Associated Press))

The United States is moving toward enshrining a free and open internet with six proposed rules designed to prevent telecommunications companies from interfering with how people use their connections.

The rules are needed because American internet providers have interfered with internet traffic on a number of occasions and they must be prevented from doing so in the future, said Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"The rise of serious challenges to the free and open internet puts us at a crossroads. We could see the internet's doors shut to entrepreneurs, the spirit of innovation stifled, a full and free flow of information compromised. Or we could take steps to preserve internet openness, helping ensure a future of opportunity, innovation, and a vibrant marketplace of ideas," he said.

"The internet is an extraordinary platform for innovation, job creation, investment, and opportunity. It has unleashed the potential of entrepreneurs and enabled the launch and growth of small businesses across America. It is vital that we safeguard the free and open internet."

The FCC, the United States' counterpart to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, has since 2005 applied four so-called net neutrality principles in its decision-making. The regulator is now seeking to codify those principles, along with two new ones, as law.

The principles

Two new principles will join those original four and be formalized as official rules that will apply to both wired and wireless networks:

  • Consumers are entitled to access whatever lawful internet content they want.
  • Consumers are entitled to run whatever applications and services they want, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • Consumers can connect to networks whatever legal devices they want, so long as they do not harm them.
  • Consumers are entitled to competition between networks, applications, services and content providers.
  • Service providers are not allowed to discriminate between applications, services and content outside of reasonable network management.
  • Service providers must be transparent about the network management practices they use.

Genachowski, who was appointed to his job this summer by President Barack Obama — a fellow net neutrality supporter — said the FCC will launch its rule-making process in October and will seek input from the public and interested companies. The rules will have to be approved by the FCC's five commissioners, three of which are Democrats and supporters of net neutrality.

Happy to hear news

Net neutrality supporters cheered the news. Vint Cerf, the Google vice-president who helped created the internet in the 1970s and 1980s, said the rules are needed because internet providers have recently started blocking applications — such as peer-to-peer software — and favouring certain websites.

"If consumers had a wide choice of broadband service providers, preserving an open internet might not be such a critical issue. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans have few [if any] choices in selecting a provider," he wrote on Google's public policy blog. 

"As a result, these providers are in a position to influence whether and how consumers and producers can use the on-ramps to the internet — and we've already seen several examples of discriminatory actions or threats that impair openness."

One of the instances Cerf was referring to was cable provider Comcast's blocking of peer-to-peer traffic last year. The company was sanctioned by the FCC and ordered to stop the practice, but Comcast filed a lawsuit against the regulator saying it didn't have the authority to make such demands. The lawsuit is still pending.

The move is a major blow to phone and cable companies, who have argued that they need to manage their networks as they see fit. They have also said that further regulation of their networks will discourage investment in them. Wireless companies will be particularly opposed as so far, they have been able to call the shots on what applications and services consumers can use on their devices.

"We believe that this kind of regulation is unnecessary in the competitive wireless space as it would prevent carriers from managing their networks — such as curtailing viruses and other harmful content — to the benefit of their consumers," Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice-president of regulatory affairs for the Cellular Telephone Industries Association, told the Wall Street Journal.

In Canada the CRTC is looking at whether net neutrality rules are needed, and if so, what they should be. The regulator held a series of hearings this summer and is expected to announce its findings this year.

Canadian internet providers have said net neutrality rules are not needed because the Telecommunications Act already prohibits preferential treatment of traffic. Neutrality supporters, however, have argued that cases such as the slowing of peer-to-peer traffic by several internet providers — which the CRTC allowed after hearings last year — show that the rules aren't strong enough.