FCC Rule to Keep Net Neutrality in Limbo for Years

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2011-01-23 Print this article Print


If this looks like the rules were rammed through with as little input as possible, consider that the actual public release of the rules happened very late in the day before a major holiday, when virtually no one would be able to examine them for several days. If this seems like old-fashioned, closed-door, smoke-filled-room politics, one can almost see the smoke wafting in the air. 

The bottom line, and Verizon's point in the suit against the FCC, is that the commission cannot make laws. That power is reserved for Congress. Previous Congresses were unable or unwilling to define what constituted net neutrality and, more important, they were unwilling to give the FCC the power to do so. But instead of simply following the law, the FCC Democratic majority decided to force through its net neutrality ideas while Congress and most of the other legal and governmental authorities were in recess for the Christmas holidays. Perhaps Genachowski thought nobody would notice. 

The problem is, everyone noticed. Worse, because the FCC forced through its one-man-rule on net neutrality, it has performed a very real disservice to the valid concerns of consumer groups and the backers of net neutrality. That's because his old-style political approach to regulation will not only bring about certain defeat of the FCC's rules, but it also means that there's still nothing on the horizon that will legally limit Internet providers' actions. If Comcast wants to stop BitTorrent again, it can. If Verizon wants to block NetFlix in favor of its own movie service, it can do that too.  

While most ISPs have said they don't intend to block access to any legal content on the Internet, there are a lot of ways to interpret what it means to block something. Throttling a movie service to near analog modem speeds, for example, may not be technically blocking it, but it has the same effect. But without some kind of net neutrality rules that are actually enforceable, it's legal to do that. 

Unfortunately, when private companies are controlling access to the flow of information and ideas, there's always a temptation to maximize profits. While it's unlikely that Verizon could get away with blocking, say, Google in favor of Yahoo, there's a lot that the company could do if it chose to. Because most cable providers have an effective monopoly in their areas, and as a result also control most Internet access, there's not much customers can do if their provider decides to play games with content.  

And now, because of a series of ill-considered actions on the part of the FCC chairman, it's more likely than ever that these customers will remain out of luck indefinitely. In effect, Genachowski has ensured that the one thing he claimed to be against will certainly happen. Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll see Congress create the structure and the authority that needs to be there, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Congress to unscrew what the FCC screwed up. 


Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazineÔÇÖs Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

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