Internet rules with no bite seem a tad heavy on the ‘neutrality’

Update: Here’s a link (PDF) to the full text of the FCC order.

For GMSV’s year in review, we were considering filing net neutrality under Things We Said Goodbye To in 2010 — it seemed dead as recently as the end of September. (See Quoted: Ball in FCC’s court as net-neutrality talks fail.) But the FCC on Tuesday passed, in a 3-2 vote, what Chairman Julius Genachowski calls a set of “strong and balanced” net-neutrality rules, although many people would beg to differ.

Net neutrality, the principle of equal, unfettered access to the Internet, theoretically gets a boost from yesterday’s action by the Federal Communications Commission, which has yet to release the full set of rules. But from what they heard, net-neutrality backers — consumer advocacy groups and companies that deliver content, such as Netflix, and Facebook — were either disappointed or reacted cautiously.

“The new rules are a move in the right direction, but didn’t go as far as we’d hoped. We remain optimistic that the two-tiered Internet exceptions won’t in effect swallow the net neutrality rule,” Steve Swasey, Netflix vice president of corporate communications, told GMSV in an e-mail.

The two tiers are fixed broadband and mobile broadband, and the establishment of these tiers is a big blow to net neutrality. On one hand, according to Genachowski’s prepared statement, “there is one Internet, and it must remain an open platform.” But the FCC chairman also seemed to pledge to go easier on mobile broadband, citing its “stage and rate of innovation.” The Free Press, a non-partisan media-advocacy group, sounded an ominous — and for the moment, premature — warning about the rules regarding mobile: “They fail to protect wireless users from discrimination. No longer can you get to the same Internet via your mobile device as you can via your laptop.”

When asked for comment, a Google spokesman referred GMSV to the reaction by the Open Internet Coalition, of which it is a member. (Facebook and are also members.) But the OIC’s statement on its website includes the following: “However, we also recognize the great potential that wireless broadband presents to consumers, innovators and the economy.  The Commission should move to apply the same rules of the road to all Internet access platforms moving forward.” This seems to contradict Google’s suggestion, which it made in conjunction with Verizon in August when the two companies offered a framework for net neutrality, that mobile broadband be treated differently. (See And now we present loopholes just as massive as our biceps.)

Back to Netflix. While the FCC rules ban “unlawful discrimination” of Internet traffic, they also pave the way for tiered pricing by broadband providers. So, although the Mercury News reports that the new rules prohibit Comcast and AT&T from favoring their own content over Netflix’s, the rules also seem to lean toward Comcast’s side in its plan to charge additional fees to Level 3 Communications, the content-delivery network provider for Netflix. (See Net neutrality takes the Comcast fight to a Level 3.)

The FCC had to balance many competing interests and engage in partisan bickering to even get to this point, it’s true. A Mercury News editorial says the rules reflect the political reality. With even the Democratic FCC commissioners who voted for the new guidelines acknowledging the rules’ many shortcomings — about the only thing the rules demand is transparency about broadband network management — it’s laughable that the two Republicans on the commission who voted against them could muster all that outrage. And House Republicans are promising to fight the already watered-down, business-friendly rules further, according to Hillicon Valley. Somebody tell them the rules are far from any kind of radical government takeover. In fact, they’re mostly meaningless, writes Dan Gillmor at Salon, who says we seem headed toward an Internet that is “an enhanced form of cable television.” And in terms of certainty, which Genachowski claims the rules provide, we are left with as many questions about the future of an open Internet as we had when all this talk started years ago and heated up this year. (See On freedom and the FCC. And GigaOm has a time line.)


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  • Terry Gannon

    I beg to differ with the opinions in this column. To encourage regulation of something not broken such as the internet speaks to something in our society that does need to be fixed, and that is the notion that DC knows best. It was not that many years ago that most hitech companies could not spell lobbying, and now they invest mightily. Has all of this regulation increased competition or has it secured a position of control for the big muscles in the industry? When are we going to see that DC is the antithesis of competition and innovation? When are we going to see this and act upon it?

  • west4567

    Terry Gannon is right. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But expansionist government can’t control it’s reflexive urge to control everything, broken or not.

    As for the “non-partisan media-advocacy group” called “Free Press,” here’s what it’s founder Robert McChesney said last year “‘At the moment, the battle over network neutrality is not to completely eliminate the telephone and cable companies,'” he told the website SocialistProject in 2009. ‘But the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.’

    You want government control of the Internet? You got it.

  • Levi Sumagaysay

    Where exactly is the government control? Corporations, such as AT&T, had extensive input into the FCC proposal.

  • Ed Cahill

    Don’t be fooled. This is nothing less than the FCC and Obama taking over the internet. They call it net neutrality but it is really net censorship of anyone who disagrees with them or they don’t like. Using the net as a independent news source will be a thing of the past. It is not needed for a problem that does not exist. Stop it NOW while you can still freely use the net or you will wish you had. Why do you think they are doing this against the wishes of Congress at Christmas time? Wake up!

  • west4567

    Levi asks, “Where exactly is the government control?”

    Well, it’s now wherever the FCC says it is, because three unelected commissioners have decided that they have the authority to regulate Internet traffic. With no mandate from Congress and scant demand from the public, the FCC regulation is largely a solution in search of a problem.

    To the extent there really is a problem, if the FCC limited its regulation to making sure that Comcast doesn’t screw content providers, that would be fine.

    But what is there in the history of government regulatory agencies that would make us think that the FCC won’t simply decide that it has additional authority? After all, they just assumed that they have the authority they are exercising now – no Congressional approval needed.

    The FCC has regulated political speech in the past, and there are people in key FCC positions who still advocate it (Such as Mark Lloyd, who believes that political talk radio needs to be regulated). Is it so hard to believe that, if they had free reign, they would gladly regulate content for the good of the unwashed masses?

  • sd

    What’s the difference anyway? On one hand you have the unelected bureaucrats of the FCC; on the other you have the unelected CxOs of Disney/ABC/ESPN/RadioDisney/Pixar/Marvel/CapitalCities/Hyperion and Comcast/NBCUniversal/ComcastOnline and News Corp/HarperCollins/Fox/WSJ/Barron’s/20thCenturyFox and TimeWarner/HBO/CNN/TurnerBroadcasting/DC.

    At least until Diebold becomes a subsidiary of Fox, I have a shot at getting rid of the bureaucrats in the FCC. No such chance with the other guys and I’m very wary of letting them look out for “my best interests”.

  • Levi Sumagaysay

    @west4567: I share your concerns about possible government censorship of online content — there is always that risk. But in this case I think that if the FCC truly was looking for a complete power grab, it would have enacted more stringent rules as opposed to the ones that satisfy nobody. The FCC is painfully aware its authority is limited, and if it ever tried censorship of online content it would be easy to point out that it was violating its own “non-discrimination” principles. … I agree with sd that Americans have a better chance of influencing government actions than that of big business.

  • west4567

    I hope you are right. The story of government is one of continually expanding its own power, usually under the guise of doing it “for our own good.”
    Regarding influencing government versus big business? There’s a huge difference. We influence businesses everyday with our choices. That luxury does not exist with governments, which can and do force you to do business with them, on their terms, by force of law, and a one-size-fits-all approach to services.
    If Comcast thottles down P2P traffic, you can take your business elsewhere. But if the FCC decides that the fairness doctrine needs to be applied to the nation’s limited bandwidth, you’ve got no recourse. Neither Congress nor the President can override them. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the courts come through, if needed. But on what basis? Until it’s overturned, the FCC has just established itself as the traffic monitor for the Internet.
    P.S. thanks for responding. My original comments weren’t directed specifically at you, but rather the plethora of folks who want more government intervention.