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US regulator reverses position on net neutrality

A US regulator has voted to repeal 'net neutrality' regulations that governed how internet service providers (ISPs) in the country could manage the traffic over their networks.18 Dec 2017

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said it had taken its action to "restore internet freedom".

The net neutrality rules, set in 2015, bannned internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or throttling traffic over their networks or reaching commercial agreements with content providers to prioritise their traffic over that of other content providers.

The FCC described the previous framework as "heavy-handed utility-style regulation of broadband internet access service, which imposed substantial costs on the entire internet ecosystem". It has voted to return to the previous rules that applied and introduce new "transparency requirements" for ISPs to "empower consumers as well as facilitate effective government oversight of broadband providers’ conduct".

The FCC's decision was welcomed by ISPs.

Michael Powell, president and chief executive of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) said the FCC's action "rightly restores the light-touch approach to government regulation of the internet that has fostered the development of a vibrant, open and innovative platform".

"For decades, America’s internet service providers have delivered an open internet – allowing consumers to enjoy the lawful internet content and applications of their choosing. Nothing in this decision alters that commitment – ISPs have stated repeatedly that they do not and will not block, throttle or unfairly discriminate in how internet traffic is delivered."

“We cannot reach for the future with regulation from the distant past. [The previous net neutrality regime] and its accompanying regulatory uncertainty deters the innovation and investment needed to build the next generation of broadband and bring its benefits to all Americans," it said.

Powell called on the US Congress to "craft legislation that settles this decade-long debate and permanently enshrines open internet protections into law while ushering in a new era of connectivity for American consumers".

Chuck Hogg, chairman of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), said: "The internet was free and open before the FCC imposed more onerous, one-size-fits-all rules in 2015, and it will be free and open when we return to a lighter-touch regulatory framework."

"Our members do not block, throttle, or accept payments to prioritize internet traffic. WISPA agrees that ISPs should clearly disclose their terms of service, disclose their network management practices, and protect their customers’ private information; and our members do. All of this will continue under the FCC framework adopted today," Hogg said.

However, the Internet Association, a trade body that counts a number of major technology businesses, including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, as its members, said it is opposed to the repeal of the net neutrality rules.

Internet Association president and chief executive Michael Beckerman said the decision "represents a departure from more than a decade of broad, bipartisan consensus on the rules governing the internet".

"Relying on ISPs to live up to their own ‘promises’ is not net neutrality and is bad for consumers," Beckerman said. "Let’s remember why we have these rules in the first place. There is little competition in the broadband service market – more than half of all Americans have no choice in their provider – so consumers will be forced to accept ISP interference in their online experience. This is in stark contrast to the websites and apps that make up Internet Association, where competition is a click away and switching costs are low."

Beckerman said the Internet Association is considering a legal challenge to the FCC's decision and said it is "open to Congress enshrining strong, enforceable net neutrality protections into law".

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom recently announced that it opened a new "enforcement programme" to formally monitor the way in which ISPs in the country manage the flow of data over their networks. The move is in line with its obligations under EU 'net neutrality' laws, known officially as the Open Internet Access Regulation (the Regulation).