RealTime IT News

Regulating The Internet Not So New

It works so well as a sound bite: "Don't regulate the Internet!"

Opponents to a law mandating network neutrality use it all the time, noting Americans should just say no to government regulation of the Internet.

Amazon's Paul Misener, on the other hand, wants you to say yes to regulation.

Misener, Amazon's vice president for global policy, is one of the emerging voices in the Washington debate over network neutrality, testifying before numerous congressional panels, speaking before tech groups and enduring media interviews.

"The Internet was regulated from the start," Misener told internetnews.com. "[Until recently], there was never a time when at least part of the Internet wasn't heavily regulated."

Misener knows a thing or two about government regulation of the Internet, having served in the 1990s as chief of staff and senior legal counsel to former FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth.

He also pulled a stint as a policy specialist for the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Misener is quick to point out those Internet regulations included mandated network neutrality. Now they do not.

So what happened? Brand X did.

In 2002, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that cable broadband providers are information services and do not have to share their lines with competing Internet service providers (ISPs).

The ruling prompted a Santa Monica, Calif.-based ISP named Brand X to sue the FCC for open access to cable lines.

The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which last summer ruled the FCC was within its regulatory authority to exempt cable modems from common carrier obligations.

"The court did not say the FCC ruling was correct or incorrect, only that it had the regulatory discretion to make the ruling," Misener said.

The FCC then extended the same exemption from common carrier regulations to telephone companies offering broadband service.

The two FCC rulings had the practical effect of doing away with the slew of regulations mandating network neutrality that came out of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

"We want to reinstate a part of the many rules that used to govern access to the Internet," Misener said. "We want to blow up this one change to give consumers a real choice."

Since the FCC rulings, the telephone companies have already announced their plans to create a two-tiered Internet where content, application and server providers would be forced to pay a fee to run their content and services at the same speed and quality as the telecoms' own content and services.

Those who don't or can't pay the fee would be in the slower, but free, "public" Internet lane.

"We don't begrudge [telecoms'] market power over transmission, but we don't want them to extend their market power over content," Misener said.

"If there was a more competitive broadband market and if the Internet hadn't been regulated in the past [to prevent network discrimination], we might feel differently now."

But they don't.

"We want strong, enforceable network neutrality provisions in the telecom reform law," he said. "We'll hold up the legislation until we get it."

Amazon and most of the major technology companies backing network neutrality, combined with a growing Internet grassroots organization, have a major bargaining chip in the legislative negotiations: IPTV.

AT&T and Verizon want national video franchising power to roll out their IPTV offerings. Both the House and the Senate have made video franchising the centerpiece of telecom reform in hopes of spurring competition in the pay TV market.

So then do AT&T and Verizon want it badly enough to concede on network neutrality?

In any event, it all involves regulating the Internet.