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FCC head presses ahead on Internet regs

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In the latest evidence that the November elections are forcing a new political pragmatism on the White House, President Obama's chairman of the Federal Communications Commission outlined a revised plan to regulate Internet traffic on Wednesday that is more friendly to business interests.

But even the more modest attempt by the Obama administration to exert more control over Internet broadband providers is expected to draw fierce opposition from Republican lawmakers. The issue of "net neutrality" has also sparked a fierce debate about the future of online communication and the open nature of the Internet.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said his proposal would forbid major Internet broadband providers such as Comcast and Verizon from secretly blocking or interfering with "lawful Internet traffic."

Consumer groups and Internet-based businesses like Netflix have complained that the big telecommunications firms have slowed or blocked access to streaming video or file-sharing from competitive sites to give their own alternative movie and entertainment sites a competitive advantage.

Mr. Obama, who campaigned on a promise to create a more consumer-friendly net neutrality policy, appointed Mr. Genachowski to the FCC in 2009, but the Harvard-educated lawyer's months of pushing for reforms have been stymied by opposition in the industry, Congress and courts.

In Wednesday's speech, Mr. Genachowski said his latest proposal, which will go before the rest of the commission later this month for a vote, will allow Internet providers to continue to charge higher rates for higher levels of access, and backs away from earlier plans to extend the federal government's regulatory powers over the industry.

"Moving this item to a vote is not designed to preclude action by Congress," he said.

Mr. Genachowski said his proposal is an attempt to recognize the need for broadband providers to manage the growing traffic on their networks and earn a profit on their investments in infrastructure.

"Broadband providers have natural business incentives to leverage their position as gatekeepers to the Internet," he said. But, he said, firms need to be transparent with consumers about that gatekeeper's role and even-handed when dealing with start-ups or technology companies that could be competitors.

Otherwise, he said, "The record ... shows that there are real risks to the Internet's continued freedom and openness."

Even before Mr. Genachowski released his plan, congressional Republicans were slamming his decision to move ahead before the new Congress, with Republicans in charge of the House and with a larger minority in the Senate.

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