The US Federal Communications Commission is today expected to give its formal approval to controversial new rules governing the way broadband users access online services such as Skype or streaming movie service NetFlix.
The issue has become a cause célèbre for proponents of ‘net neutrality’ - the principle that all data carried over the internet should be treated equally, whether it's email, VoIP telephony data, streaming video or web pages.
Net neutrality has been a guiding principle behind internet regulation but has so far never had the weight of law behind it.
The framework currently proposed by the FCC will see net neutrality enshrined in US law for the first time for fixed-line connections, but largely abandoned when it comes to wireless internet access - an idea that sparked huge controversy when it was suggested by Google and mobile carrier Verizon, in a secret deal cooked up by the two companies over the summer.
Democrat senator Al Franken has gone as far as dubbing the debate over net neutrality "the most important free speech issue of our time". The reason? Because the new rules could see the creation of a ‘two-tier’ internet, with operators in the growing wireless and mobile internet market free to decide the priority of different traffic over their networks.
FCC members Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn last night said they planned to support the proposal, which was laid out by chairman Julius Genachowski. Both commissioners had said on Monday that the proposals were not as strong as they would have liked, but that they could live with them.
Their two votes will seal a 3-2 majority when the five-member committee meets in Washington later today to approve the Open Internet Order.
Genachowski’s proposal bans fixed-line internet providers from blocking legitimate content or services from rivals, and prevents them giving priority to paying clients.
Mobile and wireless internet providers will see much less stringent regulation. Mobile carriers will be able to charge content providers in return for giving priority to their services, and wireless providers will also be able to block services – as long as it is not for the purposes of preventing competition.
More importantly for consumers, the new rules will also enable providers to charge end users higher prices for access to bandwidth-hungry services such as streaming video.
UK communications minister Ed Vaizey whipped up controversy last month after delivering a speech in which he appeared to express a willingness to abandon net neutrality. An idea that has come under attack from a number of sources including the BBC, whose ‘watch again’ iPlayer application could be throttled by ISPs under such a plan.