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By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday that he is proposing tough new rules governing online traffic that would regulate Internet service like a public utility but modernize the oversight “for the 21st century.”

The proposed net neutrality rules would prohibit broadband companies from charging websites for faster delivery of their content and from blocking or slowing any legal online content or service, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said.

The regulations would apply to wired and wireless Internet service, he said in an opinion article on Wired’s website.

“The Internet must be fast, fair and open. That is the message I’ve heard from consumers and innovators across this nation,” Wheeler said in announcing his steps after millions of comments flooded the agency.

“That is the principle that has enabled the Internet to become an unprecedented platform for innovation and human expression,” he said. “The proposal I present to the commission will ensure the Internet remains open, now and in the future, for all Americans.”

Wheeler’s proposal must be approved by a majority of the five-member FCC, which is scheduled to vote on it Feb. 26.

“My proposal assures the rights of Internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler is a Democrat appointed by President Barack Obama, and the FCC has a 3-2 Democratic majority. His fellow Democrats are expected to back the proposal, with the Republican commissioners opposing it.

Major Internet content companies have pushed the FCC for tough net neutrality rules. But broadband providers have threatened to sue the agency if it approves utility-like regulation, arguing it is overstepping the FCC’s authority.

After a federal court tossed out the FCC’s net neutrality rules last year, Wheeler initially proposed a lighter regulatory approach that could have allowed for some so-called paid prioritization of content.

But in November, Obama publicly called for the FCC to take a stronger approach that would classify the Internet as a regulated utility under Title 2 of the 1996 telecommunication law. Most Democrats support the tougher approach, but key congressional Republicans strongly oppose it.

Wheeler says in the Wired article that he believes the FCC has the power to reclassify Internet service as a regulated utility.

“The Congress gave the FCC broad authority to update its rules to reflect changes in technology and marketplace behavior in a way that protects consumers,” he said. “Over the years, the commission has used this authority to the public’s great benefit.”

He argues that the Internet wouldn’t have developed if the FCC had not mandated open access for network equipment in the late 1960s.

Broadband companies and Republican opponents of utility-like regulation said it was meant for railroads and phone companies, not the fast-evolving Internet.

Key congressional Republicans have proposed legislation that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking websites, slowing connection speeds and charging companies for faster delivery of their content — but without utility-like regulation.

Wheeler said Wednesday he would modernize the utility regulations so they would not squelch investment in broadband networks. For example, he said the FCC would not impose rate regulation or tariffs on Internet service.

The regulations “will be strong enough and flexible enough not only to deal with the realities of today, but also to establish ground rules for the as-yet unimagined.”

Photo: ALA Washington Office via Flickr

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