Last Tuesday, 21 December 2010, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to approve a weak and watered down internet access regulation, under the guise of supporting network neutrality. Network neutrality is the concept that each bit of information traversing the internet is treated the same as every other bit of information, without regard to content, source, or destination. FCC chair Julius Genachowski found the false middle way with his proposal, saying, “I reject both extremes in favor of a strong and sensible framework—one that protects Internet freedom and openness and promotes robust innovation and investment.”
The FCC Report and Order (.pdf; 1MB) prohibits wired broadband providers from blocking user access to sites and applications. But language like “unreasonable discrimination” and “reasonable network management” are loopholes wide enough for the providers to move even their fat corporate asses through. More importantly, the FCC rules allow for “paid prioritization” allowing deep-pocketed corporate media interests to pay providers for faster transmission speeds.
With its other hand the FCC voted to exempt wireless networks from the same provisions, citing its nascent nature.
The Media Access Project spoke for many network neutrality advocates, saying, “There is a reason that so many giant phone and cable companies are happy, and we are not. These rules are riddled with loopholes. They foreshadow years of uncertainty and regulatory confusion, which those carriers will use to their advantage.”
Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota), admittedly a policy wonk, demonstrated that he understood the network neutrality question better than anyone else in the US Congress or the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). “Maybe you like Google Maps. Well, tough,” said Franken on the Senate floor a few days before the FCC released its ruling. “If the FCC passes this weak rule, Verizon will be able to cut off access to the Google Maps app on your phone and force you to use their own mapping program, Verizon Navigator, even if it is not as good. And even if they charge money, when Google Maps is free. If corporations are allowed to prioritize content on the internet, or they are allowed to block applications you access on your iPhone, there is nothing to prevent those same corporations from censoring political speech.”
The two Republican FCC commissioners—Meredith Baker and Robert McDowell—opposed the commission’s ruling, citing governmental overreach.
President Obama, who campaigned hard on network neutrality, congratulated the FCC on its vote and said the US government would “remain vigilant and see to it that innovation is allowed to flourish, that consumers are protected from abuse, and that the democratic spirit of the internet remains intact.”
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak wrote an open letter to the FCC pleading for a free internet. Using analogies of his original dial-a-joke service when AT&T still held a monopoly and telephone answering machines were illegal, his lack of cable television and DSL service to his home, and his Woz TV, Wozniak draws comparisons to the FCC’s move to make the internet less free and open.
Dan Gillmor calls it the “neutering of the internet” in his piece for Salon. Gillmor writes that “the move is well underway to turn the internet into a regulated playground for corporate giants. ... The longer-range result will be to solidify the power of the incumbent powerhouses—especially telecommunications providers and the entertainment industry—to take much more control over what we do online.” Gillmor notes one redeeming quality of the FCC’s ruling: Internet service providers will be required to be more transparent about their network management practices. Gillmor also rings the alarm of internet service providers spying on their users as the surveillance and enforcement arm of the US entertainment cartel.
The one glimmer of light in all this is that the FCC has very likely overstepped its authority with the ruling. Last spring, a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC had similarly overstepped its authority when the commission sanctioned Comcast for blocking BitTorrent traffic on its networks. Representatives Fred Upton (R-Michigan) and Greg Walden (R-Oregon) intend to call Genachowski for hearings in the House of Representatives about whether the FCC has overstepped its authority. Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) said she’d introduce legislation to block the FCC regulations and Representative Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) pledged to withdraw funds needed to execute the rule.
The FCC’s final order, the one upon which the commissioners voted, was not immediately published. The FCC claimed the delay was necessary because dissenting views have to be addressed. By keeping the final order secret, the FCC fell short on President Obama’s pledge for transparency and “open government” across the administration. Jeff Jarvis has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information related to the final order.