Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Net Neutrality: Medium or Message

While everyone’s attention was focused on the potential for a government shutdown, House Republicans passed a bill to repeal federal rules barring Internet service providers from blocking or setting different prices for some uses of their networks. According to the Associated Press, in voting to repeal rules on “network neutrality” set down by the Federal Communications Commission, Republicans claimed that the FCC lacked the authority to impose such rules.

“The FCC power grab would allow it to regulate any interstate communication service on barely more than a whim and without any additional input from Congress,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R, OR), a sponsor of the legislation. The vote along party lines to pass the bill, H.J. Res. 37, was 240-179. This is the same House that voted 228-192 on a bill to defund National Public Radio last month. It is yet another bill unlikely to pass in the Senate and doomed to a presidential veto if it should.

The concept of “net neutrality", according to the New York Times, holds that companies providing Internet service should treat all sources of data equally. The debate centers on whether those companies can give preferential treatment to content providers who pay for faster transmission, or to their own content, “in effect creating a two-tier Web, and about whether they can block or impede content representing controversial points of view.”

Before the House took up a joint resolution condemning the new Internet access rules, Verizon and MetroPCS brought a lawsuit to court that challenged the FCC’s pending rules to keep Internet service providers from blocking access to certain Web sites or applications. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit rejected the suit as “premature.” Although considered by some as a first-round victory for the F.C.C. and its chairman, Julius Genachowski, the real battle over the commission’s attempt to regulate broadband providers has only just begun.

In a recent meeting with Wall Street Journal reporters and editors, Genachowski said, “I don’t see any circumstances where we’d take steps to regulate the Internet itself.” He added, “I’ve been clear repeatedly that we’re not going to regulate the Internet.” In trying to craft new rules that would require phone and cable companies to treat all legal Internet traffic that flows over their lines equally, the FCC had proposed a draft of “net neutrality” rules last fall. “The communications line piece is something that we have historic responsibility for [in] promoting competition and promoting innovation. So that is the distinction,” Genachowski said.

Internet service providers, of course, say there’s no need for the government to step in, as do other opponents of the FCC.

Freedom Works called the FCC rules “job-killing regulations [that] would involve significant new controls on the Internet that would have significant implications for investing in innovation and broadband deployment.” In urging passage of HJR 37, it posted, “The FCC should respect this fact—and the careful separation of power laid out in the US Constitution—and not make such sweeping law where the legislature has not.” Naturally, anything that conservative organizations and Republicans don’t like, out comes the Constitution.

Another organization, Americans for Prosperity went as far to charge that “Chairman Genachowski, a long-time executive at Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp, one of the leading corporate beneficiaries of net neutrality, is currently attempting FCC’s second foray into Internet regulations.” The fact is that no FCC commissioner may have a financial interest in any FCC-related business.

Consumers Union opposed the legislation. “Internet providers should not limit your choices to their preferred sites,” said Parul P. Desai, the organizations policy counsel. “Key stakeholders – from consumers, to small business, to civil rights groups and religious organizations – have overwhelmingly voiced support for Open Internet rules as well as the FCC’s authority to implement and enforce them.” Unfortunately, they did not refer to the Constitution in their opposition.

Democratic policymakers called free and open communications “a vital part of American democracy.” At the Free Press’s National Conference for Media Reform, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) said she was pleased by Democratic opposition to the GOP-backed resolution, which cleared the House under the cover of the looming shutdown. “No one should be guarding the gate on the Internet,” Pelosi said. She added that the resolution isn’t likely to gain support in the Senate. “I don’t think this bill is going anyplace.”

As I pointed out in Blogcritics two years ago, there is a difference between a regulation and a law. As an independent regulatory agency, the FCC has the power to impose regulations at any time without action by either the executive or legislative branches. The new regulations, which the FCC calls its Open Internet Order, are the rules that House Republicans attacked.

Once again House Republicans have backed a losing proposition as they did with their attempt to defund National Public Radio. The GOP opposition to Net Neutrality regulations favors corporations over consumers. At least we know where they are coming from. This time it is not about the message. This time it is about the medium and the corporations that own it. It is another win for losing.

Article first published as Net Neutrality: Message or Medium on Technorati.

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