Net neutrality at the US FCC: A brief history

An appeals court hearing Monday is the latest in a long debate over the regulations

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality regulations, also known as open Internet rules, face a hearing on Monday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Verizon Communications has challenged the FCC's authority to pass the rules.

Here's a look back at some highlights in the long history of net neutrality rules at the FCC.

February 2004 -- After many months of debate about the potential for broadband providers to selectively block or slow some Internet traffic, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican, calls for four Internet freedoms encompassing net neutrality.

August 2005 -- The FCC, while voting to end regulations requiring incumbent telecommunications carriers to share their DSL broadband connections with competitors, approves an Internet policy statement reflecting Powell's four freedoms. The policy statement, which does not have the force of regulation, says broadband users are entitled to run Web applications and services of their choice and connect their choice of legal devices to the network.

November 2005 -- Ed Whitacre, CEO of SBC (soon to be AT&T), complains to BusinessWeek about companies like Google and Vonage. "Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it."

December 2006 -- AT&T pledges to maintain a "neutral network" in exchange for U.S. government approval of its proposed acquisition of BellSouth.

May 2007 -- Comcast broadband subscribers, including networking expert Robb Topolski, begin to notice slowed connections while using BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer applications. The Associated Press, in October, publishes a report of similar results from Comcast's network. Comcast says it's managing network traffic during times of heavy use.

April 2008 -- FCC Chairman Kevin Martin says Comcast's slowing of peer-to-peer traffic appears to be more widespread than the company had disclosed. In May, the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems finds that Comcast and Cox Communications are slowing BitTorrent traffic at all times of the day, not just during peak traffic. Comcast says BitTorrent can cause traffic peaks at any time of the day.

August 2008 -- The FCC orders Comcast to stop its "invasive" interference with peer-to-peer traffic on its broadband network and to create a new network management plan.

September 2008 -- Comcast appeals the FCC's antithrottling order, arguing that the commission had no hard rules against the company's network management practices.

April 2010 -- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the same court hearing Verizon's challenge of newer rules, overturns the FCC's Comcast ruling, saying the agency lacks "any statutorily mandated responsibility" to enforce network neutrality rules.

December 2010 -- After months of discussion, the FCC approves net neutrality regulations that some consumer and digital rights groups say are weak and full of loopholes.

January 2011 -- Verizon files a challenge to the net neutrality rules, saying the FCC doesn't have the authority to enforce them. After the D.C. appeals court tosses out the lawsuit as premature because the rules aren't yet published, Verizon refiles its lawsuit in September 2011. Along the way, mobile provider MetroPCS files a similar lawsuit, then backs out after it merges T-Mobile USA.

Early 2011 to present -- U.S. House of Representatives Republicans try to overturn the FCC's net neutrality rules, without success.

September 2011 -- Digital rights group Free Press files a lawsuit challenging the net neutrality rules as too weak, with the group arguing the FCC shouldn't have allowed weaker protections for mobile broadband users. Free Press later drops the lawsuit.

November 2012 -- AT&T reverses its decision to prohibit Apple iPhone and iPad owners from using Apple's FaceTime videoconferencing application unless they buy the carrier's most expensive data plans or are connected to Wi-Fi. The original AT&T decision to block FaceTime raised net neutrality concerns from consumer and digital rights groups.

Monday -- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit hears arguments in Verizon's appeal of the FCC's net neutrality rules.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentbroadbandregulationinternetGoogleAppletelecommunication3g4gvonageat&tfree presscomcastU.S. Federal Communications CommissionVerizon CommunicationsCox CommunicationsT-Mobile USAU.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia CircuitRobb TopolskiU.S. House of RepresentativesMichael PowellKevin MartinMax Planck Institute for Software SystemEd Whitacre

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service
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