FCC chair commits to net neutrality

by Joan McCarter, Daily Kos

Good news for all American consumers who use the Internet: in a speech today at the Brookings Institution, FCC Chair Julius Genachowski made a strong commitment to preserving Net Neutrality in the face of increased efforts by providers block services and applications, saying "If we wait too long to preserve a free and open Internet, it will be too late." He continued:

We’ve already seen some clear examples of deviations from the Internet’s historic openness. We have witnessed certain broadband providers unilaterally block access to VoIP applications (phone calls delivered over data networks) and implement technical measures that degrade the performance of peer-to-peer software distributing lawful content. We have even seen at least one service provider deny users access to political content. And as many members of the Internet community and key Congressional leaders have noted, there are compelling reasons to be concerned about the future of openness.

The FCC has previously adopted the "Four Freedoms," described by Genachowksi: "Network operators cannot prevent users from accessing the lawful Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, nor can they prohibit users from attaching non-harmful devices to the network." To those Four Freedoms, the new rules Genachowski is proposing would add non-discrimination and transparency:

The fifth principle is one of non-discrimination -- stating that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications. This means they cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others in the connection to subscribers’ homes. Nor can they disfavor an Internet service just because it competes with a similar service offered by that broadband provider. The Internet must continue to allow users to decide what content and applications succeed....

The sixth principle is a transparency principle -- stating that providers of broadband Internet access must be transparent about their network management practices. Why does the FCC need to adopt this principle? The Internet evolved through open standards. It was conceived as a tool whose user manual would be free and available to all. But new network management practices and technologies challenge this original understanding. Today, broadband providers have the technical ability to change how the Internet works for millions of users -- with profound consequences for those users and content, application, and service providers around the world.

Obama hailed this move in a speech today on innovation and economic growth at Hudson Valley Community College:

Now, another key to strengthening education, entrepreneurship, and innovation in communities like Troy is to harness the full power of the Internet, and that means faster and more widely available broadband, as well as rules to ensure that we preserve the fairness and openness that led to the flourishing of the Internet in the first place.  So today, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is announcing a set of principles to preserve an open Internet in which all Americans can participate and benefit.  And I'm pleased that he's taking that step.  (Applause.)  That's an important role that we can play, laying the ground rules to spur innovation.  That's the role of government -- to provide investment that spurs innovation and also to set up common-sense ground rules to ensure that there's a level playing field for all comers who seek to contribute their innovations.

Congressional Net Neutrality hero Rep. Ed Markey also hailed the proposed new rules.

"This is a significant step towards preserving the free and open nature that has enabled the Internet to become a platform for innovation, job-creation and economic growth. I hope the full Commission follows Chairman Genachowski’s lead in this vital effort.

"Rules put forward by the Commission in this area would be a key complement to the bill that Chairman Waxman, Congresswoman Eshoo and I are advancing to codify these vital protections for consumers and innovators, and I look forward to working with the Commission and my colleagues in the weeks and months ahead. The Internet is a tool of commerce, a tool of democracy, and a tool of daily life.  In the same way that our communications networks have been guided by nondiscrimination for decades, this generation’s communications networks should operate in the same transparent and nondiscriminatory environment."

Congressional action is still necessary, as preserving an open Internet in statute will be key to its preservation. FCC regulations can certainly be repealed when a new commission comes around.

One key element of Genachowski's proposed rules is including wireless operators along with cable and telco operators, a critical addition and one already being protested by AT&T:

"We are concerned, however, that the FCC appears ready to extend the entire array of net neutrality requirements to what is perhaps the most competitive consumer market in America, wireless services," Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior vice president of external and legislative affairs, said in a statement.

He said wireless networks can't be looked at equally to wireline broadband networks because bandwidth is more limited. To impose new rules on how carriers run their wireless networks could hurt investment, he said.

Wireless is likely to become the future of broadband, particularly as it expands into rural areas, so its exclusion from the rules would be counterproductive. Of course, AT&T knows this, so this will be where it fights both during the comment period for this rule-making, and when Net Neutrality legislation starts moving through Congress again. And AT&T aren't the only opponents:

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) Monday introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that would prohibit the FCC from spending any funds "to develop and implement new regulatory mandates."

The bill was co-sponsored by Senators John Ensign (R-Nev.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), David Vitter (R-La.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and John Thune (R-S.D.).

With strong White House and Democratic support, that amendment isn't likely to pass, though it could gum of the works on an as of yet unspecified appropriations bill. As for the future of the rule in the FCC, Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn have already indicated they support stronger Net Neutrality rules, so the FCC process should move relatively smoothly. The rules will likely be proposed at the FCC meeting in October, which will launch the process with the new rule in place sometime in spring of 2010.

article originally published at Daily Kos.

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