Internet advocacy groups were quick to praise the appointment of Julius Genachowski to head the Federal Communications Commission, looking ahead to a friendly majority as they press for a more open, unfettered Web.
In his long-expected nomination of Genachowski, President Obama tapped a close friend and adviser, as well as a veteran of both government and the IT industry. Genachowski is also a firm believer in the principle of Net neutrality, welcome news for digital-rights groups like Public Knowledge.
“As the architect of President-elect Obama’s Technology and Innovation Plan, it is clear that he understands the importance of open networks and a regulatory environment that promotes innovation and competition to a robust democracy and a healthy economy,” Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn said in a statement.
“I believe that in his new role, Julius will work to ensure that the FCC meets its legal obligation to protect the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity’ and will develop a principled, strategic policy agenda that promotes openness, free speech, competition, innovation, access, economic growth and consumer welfare.”
Other groups hoping that Internet and telecom issues will enjoy a higher profile in the Obama administration, including Free Press and the Consumer Electronics Association, offered similar plaudits.
Genachowski’s tenure could mark a turning point in the focus of the FCC, a regulatory agency at the center of the escalating tension between traditional cable and telecom interests and the blooming Internet sector.
Stifel Nicolaus analyst Rebecca Arbogast looked ahead to a more favorable regulatory climate for Web firms, for whom an open Internet is a red-meat issue.
“While it remains to be seen how that agenda will play out in specific policies and industry impact, we believe the regulatory initiative is likely to shift some from incumbents — and the Bells in particular — to new entrants and other non-traditional telecom and media players, including Internet application/content providers,” such as Google and eBay, she wrote in a research note.
In the technology plan Obama developed as a candidate, when Genachowski was his top IT adviser, Obama listed Net neutrality — the principle that ISPs should not discriminate against traffic on their networks — as his top priority.
The FCC last took up the issue in a high-profile decision in August, when it ruled that Comcast had violated the commission’s Internet principles by blocking traffic from peer-to-peer file-sharing service BitTorrent. Comcast is challenging the ruling in court.
The issue could reemerge as ISPs continue to explore new pricing models, such as bandwidth caps, to cope with the fast-increasing volumes of data passing over their networks. Key lawmakers have already signaled their intent to reintroduce legislation to make an open Internet the law of the land, a move that could strengthen the FCC’s enforcement authority.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the main group representing the cable industry and a historic opponent of Net neutrality, lauded the selection of Genachowski, but steered clear of the specifics in a statement.
“He is an excellent choice, and combines the policy savvy and real-world experience that will be necessary to confront both the challenges and opportunities presented at a time of incredible change sweeping the media, communications and technology marketplace,” the group said. An NCTA spokesman told InternetNews.com that the group was not commenting further.
In the meantime, the FCC has its hands full with the transition to digital television, recently extended to June 12.
Beyond DTV and Net neutrality, Genachowski is expected to pursue policies to enhance the country’s digital infrastructure. Broadband deployment is another of Obama’s key tech priorities, and has already won support in the form of billions of dollars in grants authorized under the recently-enacted economic stimulus bill.
Genachowski’s nomination will now head to the Senate for confirmation, a process that Arbogast said could take months.
There is also a Republican vacancy in the five-person commission. After Obama names his pick for that spot, the Senate Commerce Committee could opt to consider both appointees in the same proceeding, a bipartisan review that could make for a more conciliatory confirmation process.