The big telecommunications companies and Sen. John McCain on one side, technology pioneers and Sen. Al Franken on the other, the Federal Communications Commission voted to establish rules enforcing equal access to the Internet.
The issue of net neutrality – whether everyone is entitled to equal treatment in accessing and delivering data, services or applications over the Internet – has been contentious nearly since the inception of the World Wide Web. But in the days leading up to last week’s formal Federal Communication Commission vote on net neutrality rules, the debate’s noise level went through the roof.
Generally, the large telecom and cable companies such as AT&T and Comcast, with existing Internet access services, oppose requirements of net neutrality, arguing that these rules will stifle innovation by restricting commercial rewards. The big telecoms would like to be able to negotiate special partnerships and impose added fees for carrying some types of Internet content.
From the perspective of rural communities, the primary advocates of net neutrality are likely to be small businesses, entrepreneurs and other organizations that wish to avoid being shut out, or financially discriminated against, by policies and access fees that favor larger companies that have special relationships with service providers. Consumers across the board who fear unfair pricing and limitations on their access to content also tend to line up behind open Internet access. As it stands currently, all rural broadband projects receiving stimulus grants must adhere to net neutrality rules, and it’s likely those receiving grants in Round 2 funding are expecting the same open access rules to be in place.
As the issue came before the FCC last week, U.S. Senators postured on both sides, with most Republicans and a handful of Democrats opposing net neutrality, the rest in favor. John McCain (R-AZ) in the Senate and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) in the House have each introduced legislation to block net neutrality rules. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson had threatened to amend an appropriations bill for the Department of Interior with an anti-net-neutrality mandate; for the moment, Hutchison is reconsidering that legislation. Ethnic minority groups such as the Urban League and La Raza rallied to protest net neutrality rules, arguing that they will create financial barriers to broadband adoption. And AT&T asked its 300,000 employees to call the FCC in loyal opposition.
Then, right before the FCC voted to create new rules, the pro net neutrality forces struck with a vengeance. Founding fathers and mothers of the Internet, including Vint Cerf and Lauren Weinstein wrote public letters, various public advocacy groups such as Free Press staged call-ins to the FCC. Amazon, eBay and other big tech companies that hate to lobby Washington applied lobbying pressure. An original House opponent of net neutrality, Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, jumped ship to proclaim new allegiance to the rules, and another minority group, the Color of Change, stood up in vocal support of equal access to the Net.
Amid the hurricane of opinion, FCC Chairman Genachowski last Thursday laid out the case for net neutrality, the three Democratic-appointed Commissioners voted “ay,” the two Republican appointees voted “concurring in part, dissenting in part.” The “ayes” carried and now we’re off.
But you may wonder where we’re off to. Following such intense, often vitriolic campaigning, Thursday’s meeting seemed almost too calm. The FCC laid out its lengthy Notice of Proposed Rulemaking but is a big government shoe about to drop?
Let’s look at what happened Thursday, October 22.
Chairman Genachowski set out a definition of net neutrality.
1) Consumers are entitled to access whatever lawful Internet content they want. A service provider can’t hinder or prevent you from accessing the National Rifle Association’s Web site, blogs for the Communist Party, the complete Farmers Almanac or any other content.
2) Consumers are entitled to run whatever applications and services they want, subject to the needs of law enforcement. Same idea as #1. If you want to use Google mail or run a local online book swapping business, you can’t be denied these because the Internet Service Provider (ISP) owns a competing e-mail or has cut a deal with a national book chain.
3) Consumers can connect to networks with whatever legal devices they want so long as those devices don’t harm the networks. You shouldn’t be prevented from using the smartphone you love because the wireless provider has an exclusive deal to sell some other type of device.
4) Consumers are entitled to competition between networks, applications, services and content providers. Translation: there should be more than one wireless and one wire-line service provider wherever possible. For rural communities planning (hoping) for broadband stimulus grants, net neutrality language in the NOFA (Notice of Funds Availability) means from the beginning that these networks should be built to accommodate competitors using the same core infrastructure.
5) Service providers are not allowed to discriminate between applications, services and content outside of reasonable network management. An ISP can’t allow customers to access one content provider’s application but block another provider’s application because the latter didn’t pay the provider a special speed-my-content fee. Reasonable prioritization by the ISP of medical emergency data over Lady Gaga videos should be okay, and an ISP can have different pricing for subscribers who access different amounts of data as long as pricing is not predatory or anti-competitive.
6) Service providers must be transparent about the network management practices they use. A provider can’t slow down or stop your ability to send or receive data without your knowledge. Genachowski expects that, by requiring network owners to make this aspect of their business transparent, subscribers and competitors – rather than government — will step in to force corrective action.
Genachowski argued that these net neutrality rules are not “onerous” regulation of the Internet, but sensible, justifiable regulation of the commercial entities that could put a chokehold on the Net. Acknowledging “there is no shortage of half-truths,” he emphasized that these rules are to protect consumers, businesses, nonprofits and government entities from harmful practices that might otherwise be executed to benefit the thirty or so companies that manage a third of all U.S. Internet traffic.
Genachowski pointed out the “false choice between openness and innovation” that net neutrality critics are trying to sell to the American public. He accepts and encourages the role of the private sector in bringing forth innovative new products and services, explaining that the open nature of the Internet is directly responsible for this innovation. Net neutrality protects this innovation.
The Chairman emphasized that the role of government is not to control the Internet. However, he likewise made it clear that actions of incumbent Internet providers in recent years “have left protection of the Internet vulnerable.” Though he was diplomatic enough not to say it, anyone who thinks business entities with near monopolistic reign over an industry won’t work counter to consumers’ best interests doesn’t own a mortgage, a credit card or a good grasp of history.
“There’s nothing in anything we’ve suggested,” Genachowski told reporters after the meeting, that would indicate that the FCC will meddle with companies’ delivery of the Internet. “We’re not going to require anyone to come to the FCC and ask permission,” he says. The FCC’s notice, he said, is focused on “how we’re going to codify the rules of the road.”
You can read the full text of Chairman Genachowski’s remarks.
Between now and January 14, 2010, the FCC is accepting comments from anyone who wants to voice a viewpoint on net neutrality. Then, for another two months, the FCC will allow comments on the comments. Though this many seem an interminably long time to consider six fairly straightforward rules, everyone has an opportunity to become educated on the subject and then take part in this crucial debate. It will require more effort for rural communities without broadband to participate in the comment period since they can’t easily access the FCC’s Web site, but given the potential impact of broadband on these communities, it’s an effort that will be well spent.