Net Neutrality Postmortem: Cheers and Jeers

Given the extraordinarily noisy run-up to yesterday’s meeting at the Federal Communications Commission, it’s hardly surprising that reactions came fast and furious from lawmakers, businesses and advocacy groups that had staked out a position in the Net neutrality debate.

As a matter of procedure, the action the FCC took yesterday was to initiate a rule-making process that would enshrine its 2005 Internet policy statement as formal rules, and add to it stipulations mandating non-discriminatory network management and disclosure of ISPs’ traffic-shaping policies.

The commission is calling for public comments through March, with the formal rules to be drafted and considered by the commission later next year.

But some are hoping it never gets that far.

The morning of the FCC’s vote, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced the “Internet Freedom Act of 2009,” which would bar the commission from writing Net neutrality rules.

In an op-ed penned for the Washington Times, McCain professed to be worried about a “government takeover of the Internet.”

Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, has also warned against overreaching FCC regulations. Earlier this week, one of her aides told that she had backed off of an amendment to an appropriations bill to withhold funding from the FCC and prevent it from enacting new regulations, but that the option was still on the table.

This morning, Hutchison issued a statement reiterating her concerns and saying that she would be “closely reviewing” the FCC’s notice and the comment process.

“After reviewing the commission’s decision, I will evaluate whether legislative efforts, including those recently introduced, are an appropriate course of action,” she said.

A rush to praise the FCC

Meantime, on the other side of the aisle, several Democratic lawmakers rushed to praise the FCC’s action.

Sen. John Rockefeller and Rep. Henry Waxman, who chair the commerce committees in their respective chambers, wrote a brief letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski praising his efforts and urging him to stick to his promise that the rule-making process would be transparent and data-driven.

A rare showing of bipartisan solidarity came from Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who have teamed together in the past to sponsor Net neutrality legislation.

In a joint statement, Dorgan and Snowe praised the FCC for initiating the rule-making process. “Network neutrality protects the fundamental rights of Americans in using the Internet and accessing content, applications, and services of their choice,” they said in a joint statement.

Dorgan and Snowe said they would watch the FCC’s proceeding closely, holding out the possibility that they might reintroduce legislation to support Net neutrality.

A pro-Net neutrality bill, backed by seven Democrats, has already emerged in the House. The legislation, dubbed the “Internet Freedom and Preservation Act,” bears an uncanny titular resemblance to the bill McCain introduced yesterday, though they are obviously working at cross purposes.

Next page: Telecom and cable firms weigh in

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Telecom and cable firms weigh in

Several telecom and cable firms responded to yesterday’s FCC action with guarded statements supportive of Genachowski’s goal of a free and open Internet, but expressing reservations about imposing burdensome and unnecessary regulations on the industry.

The reaction of Kyle McSlarrow, the president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and a longtime opponent of Net neutrality, was typical.

“To be clear, we regard this as a debate about means, not ends; we support a free and open Internet,” McSlarrow said. “However, we continue to believe the broadband marketplace is an unparalleled American success story and already offers consumers an open Internet experience.”

Among Internet companies, none has been a more prominent supporter of the Net neutrality rule-making than Google (NASDAQ: GOOG).

“The Internet was built and has thrived as an open platform, where individuals and entrepreneurs — not network owners — can connect and interact, choose marketplace winners and losers, and create new services and content on a level playing field. No one seems to disagree with that fundamental proposition,” Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington media and telecom counsel, wrote in a blog post following yesterday’s meeting.

“This new proceeding is aimed at opening a national dialogue on how best to protect that unique environment. For our part, we fully support the adoption of ‘rules of the road’ to ensure that the broadband on-ramps to the Net remain open and robust.”

On the eve of the FCC’s meeting, the chief executives of Google and Verizon Wireless penned a joint blog post that seemed aimed at ratcheting down the rhetoric that has attended the debate and accentuating their points of agreement.

No such accord was to be found among the advocacy groups, who have been some of the louder voices in the argument.

“The promise made yesterday by the FCC — to only apply neutrality principles to the infrastructure layer of the Net — is hollow and will ultimately prove unenforceable,” Berin Szoka, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, wrote in a blog post. “The reality is that regulation always spreads. The march of regulation can sometimes be glacial, but it is, sadly, almost inevitable: Regulatory regimes grow but almost never contract.”

Conversely, the FCC’s action was heralded by the groups that have become the standard-bearers for the Net neutrality crusade.

Public Knowledge said it was “delighted” with the FCC’s action. Free Press called the day “historic.” The Open Internet Coalition, which counts firms like Google and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) as members, said the vote had proven that the “heavy-handed lobbying that attempted to obfuscate this issue” was “counterproductive.”

So the debate goes on. The FCC set a deadline of Jan. 14 for preliminary comments on the proposed rules, and March 5 for reply comments.

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