The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should reclassify portions of broadband networks as regulated, common-carrier services to preserve net neutrality protections, Mozilla has said in a new petition to the agency.
After a contentious debate about U.S. net neutrality rules in recent weeks, Mozilla's proposal is an effort to define a "new path" for the FCC, Mozilla Senior Policy Engineer Chris Riley said. The browser maker proposes that the FCC create separate rules for how broadband providers manage traffic for their customers and for websites and Web-based service providers.
The FCC should redefine the "remote delivery" service offered by the broadband provider to websites and Web services as a regulated service covered by traditional telephone regulations, Riley wrote in a blog post Monday. The Mozilla proposal would keep the broadband providers' relationship with customers as a lightly regulated information service, as it is today.
"We use this as a way to get to meaningful nondiscrimination and no blocking within the last-mile network in a way that will ultimately benefit both edge providers and end users," Riley said in an interview. The proposal is a "different way of getting to the same place," of prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or prioritizing traffic, as proposals from groups that want the FCC to reclassify all broadband service as a regulated, telecom service, he said.
The Mozilla proposal, however, might be a more politically feasible alternative than complete reclassification of broadband. The proposal "doesn't require any changing of the current law and precedents that are out there," Riley said.
If the FCC reclassified all broadband as a regulated telecom service under Title II of the Telecom Act, it would face an almost certain court challenge from broadband providers.
Proponents of strong net neutrality rules raised an outcry after FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced, in late April, that he would propose new net neutrality rules allowing broadband providers to engage in commercially reasonable traffic management.
Wheeler said he's trying to reinstate net neutrality rules after an appeals court threw out the agency's old regulations in January, but advocates of strong net neutrality rules objected, saying Wheeler's proposal would allow broadband providers to charge Web services to prioritize their traffic. Wheeler's proposal is scheduled to be released May 15.
Wheeler's proposal raises concerns about how the FCC would treat net neutrality in the future, Riley wrote. "Even if Chairman Wheeler stands ready to use the FCC's full authority to establish stronger protections later, should they become needed, Internet users and developers cannot know whether future FCC Chairs will maintain vigilance," he said. "In contrast, clear authority and meaningful, enforceable rules would provide lasting certainty."
The Mozilla proposal would be a "minimal, yet necessary, action" to protect the goals of competition and universal service in the Telecommunications Act,
Mozilla said in a petition filed with the FCC.
"Last-mile, terminating access Internet routing is currently understood to include one type of commercial relationship: between an ISP and an end user, connecting the end user to all Internet sites," Riley wrote in his blog post. "We are challenging that understanding and proposing a modernization."
The FCC should recognize that "technological evolution has led to two distinct relationships in the last mile of the network: the current one, between an ISP and an end user, which is unchanged, plus a 'remote delivery' service offered by an ISP to an edge provider, connecting the provider to all of the ISP's end users," he added.
Free-market advocates dismissed Mozilla's proposal, saying the FCC should not regress to the old telephone-style regulatory model.
Congress and the FCC have already rejected regulation of Internet transit, said Larry Downes, a tech policy-focused author and former tech law professor. The FCC, in its 2010 net neutrality order, "explicitly and sensibly excluded peering, transit, and anything else having to do with the back-end of the Internet," he said by email. "Congress gave the FCC no authority here, and for good reason."
Telephone-style regulations are an "historic anomaly, written for a time when a single approved monopoly provider handled interconnection of voice traffic," he added. "Under the government's watchful eye, regulated Title II service has been unable to justify a business case for continued investment and innovation; it is dying, having largely been replaced by VoIP and other Internet-based voice services that are better and cheaper."
While the Mozilla petition asks the FCC to forbear from some telephone-style regulations, it doesn't define which ones the agency should avoid enforcing, added Berin Szoka, president of free-market think tank TechFreedom. An open question on which telephone-style regulations would be enforced would likely discourage broadband investment, he said.
Mozilla's proposal is just a first step, Riley said, and regulatory forbearance questions would have to be debated.
Net neutrality regulations are in effect in parts of Europe and Latin America, "and I don't see their broadband investments falling off a cliff," he added.
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 email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.