Almost no one pleased with FCC action on Internet

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission today issued the first federal regulations on how the Internet can be distributed to users, guidelines it seems that almost no one outside three-fifths of the FCC and President Obama actually likes.

While the majority said theirs was a move toward full Internet neutrality, the ruling itself stopped short of fully forbidding Internet providers from speeding traffic to some websites while slowing it to others — in effect allowing what’s known as a “tiered” Internet structure, especially for wireless access.

Sen. Al Franken
Sen. Al Franken

That move disappointed advocates for net neutrality like Sen. Al Franken, who said the new rules that are described by the FCC as advancing net neutrality didn’t go far enough, though he conceded it was probably better than passing nothing at all.

It also infuriated Republican opponents like Rep. Michele Bachmann who said the FCC has no business regulating the Internet at all.

The FCC created two segregated guidelines, one for hard-wired Internet access and another for wireless. For wired Internet plans, the rules are threefold: Internet service rules must be transparent, no sites may be blocked by providers and “unreasonable” preferential treatment of one site over another isn’t allowed. The definition of “reasonable” or “unreasonable” will no doubt be defined further in the courts, but the FCC said pay-for-preferred-access agreements would not count as reasonable.

FCC officials, however, said that mobile access was still too infant a technology to assume all three of those guidelines, so the “unreasonable” preferential treatment rule doesn’t apply.

So if you’ve got a Droid phone with Verizon cell phone service and Verizon FIOS Internet at home, Verizon would be allowed to slow down Google Maps in favor of its own mapping service on your phone, but not on your home computer (or at least, not in an “unreasonable” manner).

“The Internet of the next decade is at risk without basic FCC rules of the road,” Chairman Julius Genachowski said before the FCC approved its regulations on a 3-2 vote. The FCC’s three Democratic members voted in favor, its two Republicans voted against.

“Today’s decision will help preserve the free and open nature of the Internet while encouraging innovation, protecting consumer choice, and defending free speech,” Obama said in a statement hailing the decision.

Congress, court actions loom

FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, both Democrats, said they’d have preferred that the rules go further toward ensuring Internet parity, but agreed that the rules as written were good enough to move forward with.

“The open Internet is a crucial American marketplace, and I believe that it is appropriate for the FCC to safeguard it by adopting an Order that will establish clear rules to protect consumers’ access,” Clyburn said Monday. “The Commission has worked tirelessly to offer a set of guidelines that, while not as strong as they could be, will nonetheless protect consumers as they explore, learn, and innovate online.”

Franken, who brought Copps and Clyburn to Minnesota for town hall hearings on net neutrality, said he was closest to their points of view, but disagreed with the plan.

“The FCC’s action today is simply inadequate to protect consumers or preserve the free and open Internet,” Franken said following the vote.

“I am particularly disappointed to learn that the order will not specifically ban paid prioritization, allowing big companies to pay for a fast lane on the Internet and abandoning the foundation of net neutrality.  The rule also contains almost no protections for mobile broadband service, remaining silent on the blocking of content, applications, and devices.  Wireless technology is the future of the Internet, and for many rural Minnesotans, it’s often the only choice for broadband.”

Meanwhile, Republicans on the commission and in Congress objected to the FCC stepping into the function of an Internet regulator at all.

Michelle Bachmann
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Rep. Michele Bachmann

Rep. Michele Bachmann, shortly before the vote, called it “another example of regulatory overreach.”

“Nothing is broken in the Internet that needs fixing,” FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell agreed, while his fellow Republican, Meredith Baker, said prioritization online by providers was an essential technology to encourage additional investment in broadband networks.

More troubling, said McDowell, is that the FCC’s decision invites other governments to make similar rules, warning that the United States’ opposition to Internet restrictions in China and Iran would be weakened because the U.S. was making its own Internet rules.

Undoubtedly, the FCC’s decision will be challenged in court. In April, a federal court in the District of Columbia ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to prevent Internet providers like Comcast from prioritizing content.

Though these new guidelines were crafted to dodge that ruling, McDowell and Baker predicted they’d be challenged successfully again.

Yet even if the rules survive an inevitable court challenge, lawmakers on the left and the right have vowed to pursue legislation in the 112th Congress to modify or wholly roll back the FCC’s new regulations.

McDowell said more than 300 members of Congress on both the left and right had contacted the FCC opposing the regulations. Republican leaders in Congress said flatly they’d work to repeal it, including possibly by starving the FCC of the funding necessary to enforce its rule.

House Speaker-designate John Boehner pledged that the Republican House would “work to reverse this unnecessary and harmful federal government power grab next year.”

“The Internet is an invaluable resource — it should be left alone,” agreed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who decried what he called the Obama administration’s attempt to nationalize the Web. “Fortunately, we’ll have an opportunity in the new Congress to push back against any new rules and regulations.”

Further reading:

Detailed explanation of the plan, as well as arguments for it from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Detailed opposition from the net neutrality point of view, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Detailed opposition from the anti-regulation point of view, from McDowell.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 12/21/2010 - 03:13 pm.

    To what degree is this about making providers like Comcast provide bandwidth for alternatives to subscription cable TV? This would require a solid ten meg connection for live viewing of one show.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/21/2010 - 05:34 pm.

    And yet, #1, that is precisely the future of the internet and what will drive the general public to pay for increased levels of service.

    What’s important is that the customers who pay for a particular level of service have access to the content THEY choose to view, rather than giving their internet provider the choice of what individual customers should be allowed to view (with a preference for their own products).

    The fact is, internet access which arrives at your house through your cable connection must be seen as completely separate from TV signals which arrive through that same cable. Comcast (or Verizon or Charter) the internet provider must, for their own good, operate completely separately from the cable TV provider.

    Lacking that, as soon as those cable providers begin to interfere with what their customers can successfully view, they will find their service massively deserted in favor of wireless providers or DSL providers who are NOT limiting service.

    By the way, when our Republican friends say the internet is an “invaluable resource which should be left alone,” what they mean is that they should be left alone, and the public left with absolutely no protection as the GOP’s big money, big business friends seek to consolidate their ISP holdings, create even more monopolistic practices and discover ever newer and more creative ways to extract massive amounts of money from their unsuspecting customers.

    Shorter version: leave us alone so we can screw the general public seven ways from Sunday while paying ourselves unbelievably generous levels of compensation and making it impossible for them EVER to discover why their ISP bills (or cable bills, for that matter) have risen to ever more astronomical heights nor for them to discover why the only “informational” content available over their ISP is weasel news or some equally propagandistic purveyor of putrescence.

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/21/2010 - 09:33 pm.

    how much of an issue would regualtion be at all if our interenet infrastructure could deliver like some I’ve read about in other parts of the world ? More bandwith would of course mean more investment on the part of the cable providers etal. But I guess regulation for fast lanes would be easier then stimulating greater invesment.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/22/2010 - 10:40 pm.

    Minnesota, like other states, grants “cable communication companies” the power of eminent domain, i.e. the right to take private property by paying you, Mr. Landowner, some measly amount upon which the cable company gets to make money. They are also subject to rate regulation as common carriers. That should be the test: treat all corporations or companies that claim such a right of eminent domain the same and regulate them the same way. Don’t let any of them try to hamper content providers by the canard that they are “information service providers.”

  5. Submitted by Dale Carlton on 12/23/2010 - 01:18 pm.

    Our Republican friends seem to forget that the internet came from our government and paid for by U S taxpayers.
    Sorry my response was so slow but I’m on Comcast.

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