US DOJ questions net neutrality rules

The US Department of Justice asks the Federal Communications Commission to reject net neutrality rules, arguing that restrictions could hinder Internet growth.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should resist calls to impose net neutrality regulations on broadband providers because such rules could hurt the Internet, the U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday.

The DOJ, in a brief filed with the FCC, said net neutrality rules could "inefficiently skew investment, delay innovation, and diminish consumer welfare." Rules that would prohibit broadband providers from giving priority to their own Internet traffic and prohibit them from blocking or slowing competitors' traffic could also prevent providers from charging fees for priority service, the DOJ said. This could, in turn, cause fees to increase to all broadband users, the DOJ said.

"Free market competition, unfettered by unnecessary governmental regulatory restraints, is the best way to foster innovation and development of the Internet," the DOJ said.

Net neutrality rules could also discourage broadband providers from investing in new, high-speed services and keep providers from managing their networks efficiently, the DOJ said.

The DOJ's comments were in response to an FCC inquiry, launched in March, about whether there's a need for net neutrality regulations. Individuals and organizations have filed more than 27,800 comments in the net-neutrality inquiry, many of them from people who want the FCC to impose net-neutrality rules.

Some Internet-based companies and consumer groups have argued that net-neutrality rules are needed after the FCC and U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 did away with regulations that required incumbent broadband providers to share their networks with competing providers. Several telecom executives have complained that Internet companies are not adequately paying network owners for using their pipes.

Public Knowledge, a consumer-rights group and net-neutrality advocate, said the DOJ doesn't seem to recognize that most U.S. consumers have few choices for broadband providers.

"It is at odds with reality for a Justice Department that approved the largest telecommunications merger in history with a mere press release to now claim that market forces and antitrust enforcement will be able to protect the free and open Internet," Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president, said by e-mail. "A more vigorous antitrust analysis would have recognized there is a market failure and would have resulted in conditions on the AT&T takeover of BellSouth that would have benefited consumers and Internet companies."

The DOJ has failed to recognize that net neutrality would protect consumers and Internet companies from discrimination, she added.

"Perhaps the DOJ does not recall that there is very little in the way of market forces to protect consumers," Sohn said.

The DOJ, however, said there's little evidence of the need for net-neutrality rules, with only a "few isolated examples" of broadband providers blocking Web content from competitors. "Proponents of 'net neutrality' regulation have failed to show that a sufficient case exists for imposing the sorts of broad marketplace restrictions that have been proposed," the DOJ filing said.

In recent years, the DOJ has proposed its own regulations for the Internet. In mid-2006, the DOJ floated a proposal that would require ISPs (Internet service providers) to retain the Web histories of their users for two years as a way to aid law enforcement investigations. That proposal met resistance from ISPs.

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