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Net neutrality: Will the FCC get it over with already?

In the least-surprising development ever in the ongoing network-neutrality debate, Congress is giving up on passing a bill on this subject this year.

As my colleague Cecilia Kang reported in two posts yesterday, House net-neutrality advocate Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) couldn't get any Republican backing for a bill that would ban Internet providers from discriminating against legal sites, services and applications.

Well, duh. Of course a bipartisan bill wasn't going to happen, not this close to an election that will probably leave the GOP in a stronger negotiating position.

This returns the net-neutrality debate to where it was back in May, when Federal Communications Commission chair Julius Genachowski suggested that the FCC could write net-neutrality rules on its own by reversing its 2005 decision placing broadband providers under a looser regulatory framework than dial-up services. This "Title II reclassification" doesn't require a permission slip from Congress; a mere majority vote of the FCC's five commissioners will do.

And not only is this Title II fix (named after the chapter of the Telecommunications Act of 1934 regulating "common carrier" services) the only way left to have any effective net-neutrality rules, it's also a requirement for some important provisions in the FCC's not-terribly-ambitious National Broadband Plan.

So will the FCC go ahead and do what it's been saying it will do, or will it punt on the entire issue? I don't see any other option left.

The weird thing is, of course, that most telecom firms opposing net-neutrality rules say they would continue to treat legitimate sites and services equally anyway. Some, such as Verizon Wireless, have already committed to net-neutrality obligations imposed in wireless-spectrum sales or merger approvals.) So if we take them at their word, the FCC's actions wouldn't affect their work at all.

(But, inconveniently enough, not all Internet providers have lived up to their words.)

If anything, corporate executives' currently fashionable complaints about "uncertainty" out of Washington suggest that the FCC might as well get it over with and write a simple set of net-neutrality rules already.

If the FCC won't do that, now that every other remedy appears exhausted, the commission should admit the obvious, end this effort and stop wasting everybody's time.

By Rob Pegoraro  | September 30, 2010; 11:38 AM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics, Telecom  
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Eighty-seven engineers who played a role in the creation of the Internet have sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee urging it to sideline the bill.

"If enacted, this legislation will risk fragmenting the Internet's global domain name system (DNS), create an environment of tremendous fear and uncertainty for technological innovation, and seriously harm the credibility of the United States in its role as a steward of key Internet infrastructure," they wrote. "All censorship schemes impact speech beyond the category they were intended to restrict, but this bill will be particularly egregious in that regard because it causes entire domains to vanish from the Web, not just infringing pages or files. Worse, an incredible range of useful, law-abiding sites can be blacklisted under this bill."

Judson Berger

Posted by: corebanks1940 | September 30, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

A lot of those "engineers" are not engineers. Esther Dyson couldn't rewire a lamp to save her soul.

Also many TRUE internet leaders, such as Vint Cerf, Dave Farber, and Scott Bradner, did not sign on.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | September 30, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

@corebanks1940, @Bitter_Bill: I think you're discussing a different issue--the COICA bill that Cecilia Kang blogged about yesterday. As far as net-neutrality regs go, Cerf is in favor of them.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | September 30, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

So why couldn't the committee vote out the bill w/o Republican support?

Lack of support certainly didn't stop another Democratically-controlled House committee from voting out a health reform bill that eventually became law.

Posted by: fgoodwin | September 30, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

The real reason the Democrats did not pursue the bill was pressure from lobbyists funded by Google, a big Democratic campaign contributor. Google won't settle for PARTIAL regulation of the Internet; it wants the whole banana. So, the legislators who are its puppets in Congress dropped the bill and are now instead urging the FCC to break the law by "reclassifying" broadband as 19th Century telephone service. Which it can't do under the Administrative Procedure Act. In short, the legislators would rather tell a government agency to violate the law than displease the lobbyists.

Posted by: LBrettGlass | September 30, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Rob, your link to your earlier story says that even under a net-neutrality regime, ISPs would be permitted to impose slower downloads on P2P transmissions, so as to reduce bandwidth-hogging Then, however, you also link to a story about RCN doing just that, and it's referred to as a violation of neutrality.

Which is it?

Posted by: tomtildrum | September 30, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Service Level Agreements for all my friends!

All providers could solve this problem by offering tiers of bandwidth or bytes per metering interval. They all would love to do this anyway, but don't want to be the first to scare away customers.

Ultimately, use more = pay more will solve the problem, without gummint intervention.

Posted by: BoteMan | October 1, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

@LBrettGlass: Can you define "the whole banana" of Internet regulation that Google allegedly wants?

@tomtildrum: You misread me there. You're talking about this graf, right?

So if your Internet provider's connection gets clogged because some users are hitting one site, it couldn't cut off access to that site. But it could, after providing fair warning, throttle back those users' download speeds, cap their bandwidth or charge them extra.

In that, I argue for the opposite--don't punish the site, but punish the individual users who have burdened the network. That's a technology-agnostic, site-neutral fix. The parallel for it is not RCN's conduct, but the "fair usage policy" you see at satellite Internet providers.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | October 1, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Rob: I don't have to define that "whole banana;" the FCC has already published it as a Notice of Proposed Rule Making. (Google and its lobbyists - some of them hired into the White House - penned that document.) And FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who is especially friendly with Google's lobbyists, has gone even farther, saying that the FCC should seize full control of the Internet (by attempting to "reclassify" it as analog telephone service - something that it obviously is not) and then refuse to forbear from regulating any aspect of it. You can find both the Notice of Proposed Rule Making and Copps' statement on the FCC's own Web site.

Posted by: LBrettGlass | October 5, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

By the way: There are, indeed, sites which are egregious bandwidth hogs which it is justifiable to throttle back. For example, Facebook forces frequent, needless page reloads so that it can charge its advertisers for ad views, hogging users' and ISPs' bandwidth. And ESPN, if one just leaves one's browser on the site, downloads video after video repeatedly and blocks caching of those videos. When a site wastes bandwidth in these or similar ways, it is both in users' and ISPs' interests to throttle it back.

Posted by: LBrettGlass | October 5, 2010 8:30 PM | Report abuse

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