The U.S. Federal Communications Commission's new net neutrality rules allow the agency to police future network management practices and business models rolled out by broadband providers, raising concerns among critics that an activist commission will inject itself into ISP board rooms.
The so-called future conduct standard in the FCC's new rules leave questions about what ISP practices the agency will allow, critics say. Following the FCC's publication of the new rules last week, the future conduct standard has raised perhaps the most objections, other than complaints about the agency's decision to reclassify broadband as a regulated, common-carrier service.
"We don't really know where this is going to go, but the FCC is going to sit there as a referee," Republican FCC member Ajit Pai said Wednesday, during a Senate hearing. "The problem is, nobody even knows what the game is, what the rules are."
The future conduct standard will create questions about investing in the broadband market, Senator Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, said during the hearing. "How can any business that's trying to innovate have any kind of certainty that they're not going to be regulated by the FCC under what I view as a very vague rule?" she said.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and other supporters of the net neutrality rules have defended the future conduct standard, saying it's an attempt by the agency to keep an eye on ISPs without adopting overly restrictive bans on business plans.
The net neutrality regulations contain so-called bright-line rules prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking or throttling legal Web traffic and from charging Web-based services from paying for prioritized traffic, but the future conduct standard gives the FCC the authority to prohibit other practices going forward.
Beyond those rules, it's difficult to predict what new ISP business models will emerge, but broadband users and Web firms need the FCC looking out for them, Wheeler told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Wednesday.
"We do not want to be in a situation where we have overly proscriptive rules," Wheeler said. "Ok, let's ask a couple of questions: What's the impact on consumers of this action? What's the impact on content providers? And what's the public interest?"
Wheeler and other supporters of net neutrality have noted that several large ISPs, in the debate leading up to the vote on the new rules, called for the FCC to enforce net neutrality standards on a case-by-case basis, similar to the approach taken with the future conduct standard.
But those ISPs called for a case-by-case process as an alternative to the FCC reclassifying broadband as a regulated telecom service, noted one telecom lobbyist, who spoke on background.
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