The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Thursday to move toward new rules to prevent corporate Internet providers from charging online powers such as Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. extra for the large amount of infrastructure and bandwidth they use in delivering their services.
While technical, the issue of network neutrality - or Net neutrality - has sparked a furious, expensive lobbying war, as well as a raging debate in cyberspace over the government’s role in setting the rules of the road for the Internet, with some even arguing that the right to free speech in the Information Age is at stake.
The FCC commissioners said they were concerned about maintaining the Internet’s accessibility and openness and hope to issue a final set of rules early next year after a period of public comment.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, appointed by President Obama, said he was concerned about reports of some Internet providers slowing or blocking access to certain online companies.
“The heart of the problem is that, taken together, we face the dangerous combination of an uncertain legal framework with ongoing as well as emerging challenges to a free and open Internet,” Mr. Genachowski said.
He added that failing to consider new regulations “would be gambling with the most important technological innovation of our time.”
But the two Republican-appointed members of the commission, while voting to consider new regulations, said they are still skeptical there is enough evidence to justify government intervention.
“I am not convinced that there is a sufficient record to establish that a problem exists that should be addressed by [FCC] rules. … We should not adopt regulations to address anecdotes where there is no fact-based evidence that persuasively demonstrates the presence of a problem,” Commissioner Meredith A. Baker said.
The FCC move is designed to answer a basic question on how Internet services are delivered: Should cable and telecommunications companies be allowed to charge higher prices and fees to high-volume users to get access to their networks?
The proposed draft rule prevents operators from discriminating against any permissible content a third party sends through their networks - regardless of the volume of use - with exceptions only for technical reasons, such as to clear viruses and to block prohibited content such as child pornography.
While the panel voted 5-0 to proceed with the rulemaking, the commissioners broke down on party lines on a 3-2 vote to approve the proposed draft language as it now stands.
Complicating the dispute are fears from groups across the political spectrum that giving up the principle of Net neutrality opens the door to network owners censoring or favoring certain users based on the content of their sites.
“This is a down payment on creating a digital democracy,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a digital rights advocacy group.
Internet providers, including such companies as AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Qwest Communications Inc., say they are open to working with the FCC over the next few months as it receives public comments on the draft rules, but say Net neutrality would prevent them from managing their product lines and undercut the incentive to make an estimated $350 billion in new investments to improve their networks.
“We continue to hope that any rules adopted by the commission will not harm the investment and innovation that has made the Internet what it is today and that will make it even greater tomorrow,” said David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast Corp.
Liberal groups pushing to restrict what the Internet providers can restrict hailed Thursday’s vote.
“Today’s vote is an important step toward securing the open Internet and a victory for the public interest and civil rights organizations, small businesses, Internet innovators, political leaders and millions of people who have fought to get to this point,” said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, an advocacy group for “diverse and independent media ownership.”
Congressional Democrats - including Massachusetts Rep. Edward J. Markey - have spent the last few years pushing for legislation that would encode open access to the Internet but had been unsuccessful.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, introduced his own bill to block the FCC from moving forward with a Net neutrality rule.
New rules would create “onerous federal regulation,” Mr. McCain said.