The release of the rules, which regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility, had been eagerly anticipated by advocates and lawmakers, as well as broadband and technology companies.
WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday released extensive details of how it would regulate broadband Internet providers as a public utility, producing official wording that almost certainly sets the stage for extended legal fights.
The release of the rules had been eagerly anticipated by advocates and lawmakers, as well as broadband and technology companies, since the agency approved new rules for Internet service two weeks ago. The details came in a 313-page document that included the new rules and the legal justifications for them.
The rules revealed how the strict laws would be modified for Internet providers, exempting the companies from the sort of price controls typically applied to utilities, for example. But the full text of the new order also raised uncertainties about broad and subjective regulation. One catchall provision, requiring “just and reasonable” conduct, allows the FCC to decide what is acceptable on a case-by-case basis.
Opponents of the rules, including many of the leading Internet providers, spent Thursday poring over the document. It was not known who would file the first legal challenges, or exactly what legal arguments would be made. Many experts, though, said the document included plenty of opportunity for different interpretations.
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The “just and reasonable” provision, said Roger Entner, the lead analyst at Recon Analytics in Boston, “can be stretched like chewing gum.” He suggested it would inspire a flood of proactive, permission-seeking petitions from businesses large and small.
Entner pointed to mobile-messaging companies like Snapchat or WhatsApp that may be transmitting voice or video and seeking money from investors who want legal assurances before signing checks. “Before acting, you need to know: Is this kosher with the FCC?”
The debate about how to preserve the open Internet has persisted for more than a decade, and the FCC’s new rules are not its first attempt to protect it. But the issue picked up momentum in the last year, with President Obama taking the unusual action of publicly urging the independent agency to approve strong regulation.
The agency’s order reclassifies high-speed Internet as a telecommunications service rather than an information one, subjecting providers to regulation under Title II of the Communications Act. Its aim is to protect the open Internet, advancing principles of so-called “net neutrality” by prohibiting broadband providers from elevating one kind of content over another.
“Threats to Internet openness remain today,” the agency wrote in the document released Thursday. “The record reflects that broadband providers hold all the tools necessary to deceive consumers, degrade content or disfavor the content that they don’t like.”
Comcast and Verizon, two leading Internet service providers, declined to comment. Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, called the order’s publication the beginning of “a period of uncertainty” that the company was confident would be resolved “by bipartisan action by Congress or a future FCC, or by the courts.”
Lawsuits will not be filed until the rules are published in The Federal Register, which could take a week or more. The rules will take effect two months after they are published.
In addition to the legal challenges, the new rules could produce tension between the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission, which has historically been charged with protecting consumers’ privacy online. The order released Thursday gives the FCC new authority to police Internet privacy issues.
Some Republican lawmakers said they were going to continue pushing legislation to limit the FCC’s authority. One bill introduced in the House last week, for example, would undo the new rules.
“If there are net-neutrality rules, it’s something to be done by Congress, not the FCC,” U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who introduced the bill, said in an interview Thursday. “They’re on our turf, and we need to reclaim it.”
Blackburn said the FCC was applying Title II regulations but still picking and choosing certain companies to exempt from certain rules, like paying to prioritize traffic. The order says paid prioritization could be allowed, with approval, though it explicitly forbids companies from paying to prioritize the content of an affiliate.
“What they’re trying to do is set up a scheme whereby they can pick winners and losers,” Blackburn said.
But Tom Wheeler, the commission chairman, has expressed confidence in the agency’s ability to handle the unexpected. “We don’t know where things go next,” he said after the commission voted on the rules last month. “We have created a playing field where there are known rules, and the FCC will sit there as a referee and will throw the flag.”
Entner, the analyst, said Wheeler and advocates for strong regulation were not the only winners.
“Telecom lawyers in Washington popped the corks on the Champagne,” he said. “This will go on for a while.”