FCC Votes in Favor of Net Neutrality

[imgbelt img=FCClogo320.jpg]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.


Capitol Valley

The FCC voted in favor of net neutrality rules Oct. 22 but will be taking further comments on this rigorously contested issue through mid-March 2010. “Battle-stations!”

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.

Bert Meets the Stars

Vint Cerf, considered by many to be “Father of the Internet,” explains why he favors Net neutrality to Bert.

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.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Ivan Seidenberg, CEO of Verizon, vigorously opposed net neutralily at Supercomm 2009 last week in Chicago.

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.