Network Neutrality: Game On for Open Networks
Two lawmakers and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski deliver a chilling message to broadband providers: Consumers have rights, beginning with network neutrality.
Taken alone, neither the Federal Communications Commission's quick decision
to investigate the Google Voice ban on iPhones nor the stealthy
introduction of a network neutrality bill in Congress is hardly blockbuster
news. After all, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski came to office this summer
promising broader consumer protections, and the network neutrality bill is
being dusted off for a third time.
Taken together, though, the two decisions represent the first significant 2009 markers in what promises to be an all-out bruising battle to change the direction of technology policy in the United States. President Obama promised the change during his campaign for the White House, and Reps. Ed Markey and Anna Eschoo, who introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act July 31 in the closing moments before lawmakers headed home for their August recess, are fervent network neutrality supporters.
"The Federal Communications Commission has a mission to foster a competitive wireless marketplace, protect and empower consumers, and promote innovation and investment," Genachowski said in a statement after sending letters of inquiry to Apple, AT&T and Google regarding the Google Voice flap. "Recent news reports raise questions about practices in the mobile marketplace. The Wireless Bureau's inquiry letters to these companies about their practices reflect the Commission's proactive approach to getting the facts and data necessary to make the best policy decisions on behalf of the American people."
The statement represents an entirely different tone from the FCC of the past eight years under the Republican leadership of Michael Powell and Kevin Martin, who, it might be charitably said, favored the pro-business attitudes of the telecom industry. More specifically, Powell and Martin would have waited until an actual complaint was filed over Apple and AT&T's treatment of Google Voice. Then, they would have buried it much in the manner of the FCC's treatment of Skype's complaint about wireless carriers' policies toward VOIP.
Genachowski acted quickly-on behalf consumers-without a single complaint being filed at the FCC. The new chairman wants to know what most people want to know: just who, exactly, made this decision, Apple or AT&T? While the iPhone maker and the carrier can arrogantly stonewall the media and the public, ignoring the FCC is an entirely different matter, particularly if key technology lawmakers are waiting in the wings with the telecoms' worst fears, a network neutrality bill that turns their billion-dollar networks into dumb pipes.
"Currently, technology investors and innovators face an uncertain future-the extent of protection for consumers to use the applications and services of their choice is unclear and under challenge in federal court," Markham Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition, said in a statement about Markey and Eshoo's bill. "We look forward to action in Congress and at the FCC to ensure net neutrality protections are codified in the law and the veil of uncertainty is lifted."
The legislation would make it illegal for a broadband ISP to "block, interfere with, discriminate against, impair, or degrade the ability of any person to use an Internet access service to access, use, send, post, receive, or offer any lawful content, application, or service through the Internet."
The bill is a long shot, at best, considering most lawmakers' preference to leave network neutrality to the FCC, which currently rests its entire authority to enforce network neutrality on a legally shaky house of cards. Comcast has already legally challenged the FCC's four network neutrality principles.
But Obama's and Genachowski's technology policy changes are already sweeping through the FCC. Under a mandate from Congress, the agency is preparing a national broadband plan that will most likely include a more legally defensible network neutrality framework.
In any event-significant FCC changes or a bill by Congress-the nation's broadband providers are not about to roll over, and they are fully prepared to make a hammer-and-tong battle out of it. They have the money, the power and the political stroke.
Neither AT&T nor Verizon had a comment regarding Markey and Eshoo's bill, referring inquiries to Walter McCormick, president and CEO of USTelecom, the trade group representing telecom interests in Washington.
"This is a disappointing but not unexpected development," McCormick said of the network neutrality bill. "The nation's broadband service providers are committed to an open and free Internet and support the FCC principles that have safeguarded it for years. While we are still reviewing the language, it is readily apparent that this legislation would not preserve Internet freedom, but would instead lead to a government-managed Internet. It will create broad uncertainty and destabilize the investment that is currently creating jobs, spurring innovation and lowering prices for consumers."
With all sides now engaged, let the battle begin.