A record number of public comments have flooded the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on its proposed new 'net neutrality' rules.
The regulations would determine whether or how Internet service providers (ISPs) could charge content companies for faster and more reliable delivery of their traffic to users.
Below are some details about the concept of 'net neutrality' and the FCC's work to regulate Internet traffic.
WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?
Net neutrality is the principle that ISPs should treat all traffic on their networks equally. That means companies such as Comcast Corp or Verizon Communications Inc should not block or slow access to any website or content on the Web to, for instance, benefit their own services over those of competitors.
HOW IS NET NEUTRALITY REGULATED?
The FCC, which regulates U.S. cable and other companies that provide broadband services, has several times adopted rules to ensure that ISPs abide by the net neutrality principle.
In 2010, the FCC passed an order that prohibited ISPs from blocking traffic. It allowed "commercially reasonable" discrimination of traffic, but rejected potential "pay-for-priority" deals that might have allowed content companies to pay for faster delivery of their traffic.
However, a U.S. appeals court ruled against the FCC in January in a case brought by Verizon, effectively striking down the agency's net neutrality regulations.
Comcast is the only ISP that has to abide by the older set of rules until 2018 as a condition of its acquisition of NBC Universal. All the other major ISPs have said they support an open Internet.
WHY DID THE COURT REJECT THE RULES?
In setting the rules in 2010, the FCC treated ISPs as utilities similar to telephone companies, which are more heavily regulated. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that policy was improper because ISPs were actually classified as less-regulated information service providers.
WHAT IS THE FCC'S NEW PLAN?
The court did affirm the FCC's authority to regulate broadband, indicating the agency could use another section of the communications law to restore some of the rules.
Based on that guidance, the FCC has proposed rules that would ban ISPs from blocking users' access to websites or applications, and would require them to disclose exactly how they manage traffic on their networks.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed that some "commercially reasonable" pay-for-priority deals be allowed, although the FCC has sought comments on whether "some or all" such deals should be presumed illegal.
The proposal also asks questions about potentially reclassifying broadband providers, and how the FCC might address so-called "interconnection" deals that are currently outside the scope of net neutrality rules. These deals were in the spotlight during Netflix Corp's recent spat with Comcast and Verizon.
WHY ARE CONSUMER ADVOCATES OPPOSED?
Consumer advocates say Wheeler's proposal would create "fast lanes" for companies willing to pay, while leaving startups and others behind, potentially harming competition.
Large technology companies such as Google Inc, Facebook Inc and Amazon.com Inc have warned of a "grave threat to the Internet."
However, consumer advocates are pushing for reclassification of ISPs as public utilities, while technology companies have not specifically supported reclassification.
WHAT DO OPPONENTS OF REGULATION SAY?
ISPs say stricter net neutrality rules could discourage investment in the expensive network infrastructure. Verizon, in its case against the FCC, argued that the rules amounted to government overreach into business dealings.
Past efforts to regulate ISPs like telephone companies caused a backlash from the cable and wireless industries and Republican lawmakers. Companies argued that reclassification would create prolonged regulatory uncertainty without preventing pay-for-priority deals.
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; editing by Andrew Hay, Cynthia Osterman and Andre Grenon)