FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, had his Christmas wish granted when ‘net neutrality’ rules were voted in this week 3-2. The net neutrality vote was hardly unanimous, being carried along party lines with Democrat and Republican Commissioners voting for and against, respectively. Yet, it seems the real debate may have only just begun with the Republican majority in Congress already having attached an amendment to a spending bill that would block the FCC from enforcing the net neutrality rules and others vowing to overturn the regulations.
There were, however, concessions made to wireless operators that, as Genachowski pointed out, have “unique technical issues involving spectrum and mobile networks, the stage and rate of innovation in mobile broadband; and market structure.” This, as was widely expected, has left the door open to price mobile broadband services in ways that will differ from wireline. However, both cable, fixed and wireless operators are subject to a “no blocking” rule which affects lawful content and applications, and are also prevented from disallowing services like Google Voice which compete with their own offerings. One wonders how theblocking of access to sites like WikiLeaks would be viewed under the new regulations, even before any charges are brought against it?
Companies must also disclose information to consumers about network management practices and performance under the regulation’s transparency requirement. ‘Reasonable network management,’ is defined as ‘appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose’ such as ensuring network security and integrity, addressing harmful network traffic and mitigating network congestion.
The real question being asked by many is why does the FCC feel it has to regulate the internet at all. Republican Commissioner, Robert McDowell felt that The FCC had gone off the rails, becoming a ‘regulatory vigilante.’ He also said that the FCC was overstepping its legal authority, and that allowing ‘reasonable’ network management will lead to a flurry of litigation over what ‘reasonable’ means. “Nothing is broken that needs fixing,” he said. “No one needs permission to navigate the web freely. To suggest otherwise is nothing more than fear mongering.”
The other Republican Commissioner, Meredith Baker, said of the three that voted in favor, “They are unable to identify a single ongoing practice that they find problematic… Why do we intervene in the one sector of the economy that is working so well to create high-paying jobs, and untold opportunities?”
Why, indeed? Many outsiders are joining industry leaders in asking the same question. What may have been a popular election promise by President Obama now seems to have become another ‘big brother‘ exercise. Net neutrality is starting to look like regulation being adopted to give regulators something to do. The FCC plans to enforce the rules with its own inquiries, and consumers will have to complain directly to the FCC if they believe their broadband Internet provider is violating the net neutrality regulations. Skeptics might feel this sounds like a way to ensure the FCCs importance and ensure its long term employment.
FCC commissioner Michael Copps said that a vote for the net neutrality rules was one for free speech and innovation. However, the same FCC wants to become the internet traffic cop, hardly an auspicious sign for a free and open internet. Congress has never really authorized it to take such a role and the real fireworks may not go off until January when the real debate begins within its hallowed halls.
In the meantime, there doesn’t seem to be many other regulators around the world jumping onto the net neutrality bandwagon. Perhaps it’s just too cold, or the holiday season is taking priority. Most likely reason is they want to wait and see if it actually comes to fruition and how fellow regulator, FCC, comes through it.