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Neutrality on Net, but not in sphere of politics

FCC rules set off wide fury

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Setting the stage for a likely court battle and a showdown with Republicans in the new Congress, a sharply divided Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday approved sweeping Internet regulations designed to promote "net neutrality" and deliver on a key campaign promise of President Obama.

In a 3-2 vote split along party lines, the FCC board approved Chairman Julius Genachowski's plan to establish enforceable rules of the road for the Web, with regulations that prohibit phone and cable companies from favoring or discriminating against Internet content and services, including those from its commercial rivals.

The panel's three Democratic appointees supported the measure, while the two GOP nominees were opposed.

The vote drew fire from all sides. Republican congressional leaders called the move a federal power grab and vowed to take the FCC to task when the 112th Congress convenes. Supporters of net neutrality said the regulations were "watered down" and "loophole-ridden."

The rules were created with input from telecommunications giants such as AT&T.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, said she plans to introduce a "resolution of disapproval" to try to overturn what she called "troubling regulatory overreach by the FCC."

House Republicans, who take control of the chamber in January, vowed that hearings on a proposed repeal of the FCC's action will be at the very top of the agenda, according to incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, Michigan Republican.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, compared the FCC action to what he said were other examples of government overreach by the Obama administration.

"The Obama administration, which has already nationalized health care, the auto industry, insurance companies, banks and student loans, will move forward with what could be a first step in controlling how Americans use the Internet by establishing federal regulations on its use," he said. "This would harm investment, stifle innovation and lead to job losses."

Shrugging off criticism from allies and opponents, Mr. Obama hailed the vote in a statement released by the White House.

"As technology and the market continue to evolve at a rapid pace, my administration will remain vigilant and see to it that innovation is allowed to flourish, that consumers are protected from abuse, and that the democratic spirit of the Internet remains intact," the president said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, also issued a statement praising the FCC move.

While at times arcane, the net neutrality debate at heart is about who will write and enforce the rules of the road for the information superhighway.

Consumer groups and Internet-based businesses such as Netflix have complained that telecommunications giants slow or block access for heavy users from competitive sites to give their own movie and entertainment sites a competitive advantage. But major telecommunications firms such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon counter that they cannot justify huge investments in Internet infrastructure if they must offer access to all comers on basically the same terms.

Many conservative and libertarian critics also see the FCC move as a stalking horse for greater government control of content on the Web and the potential of silencing dissent. They also say the administration is pre-empting congressional action by proposing a solution where no problem exists.

Robert M. McDowell, one of the two GOP appointees on the FCC board, dismissed the decision as an attempt to "deliver on a misguided campaign promise" and an "obsessive quest to regulate at all costs."

" 'Innovate at your own risk' is the wrong message to send," said Meredith Baker, the other Republican commissioner.

Mr. McDowell predicted that the regulations would stifle growth and innovation before being tossed out in court. In April, a federal appeals court ruled that the agency had exceeded its authority by sanctioning Comcast Corp. for discriminating against online file-sharing traffic on its network.

The plan, drafted by Mr. Genachowski over the past year with significant input from the industry, requires broadband providers to give subscribers access to all legal online content, applications and services - including online calling services, Internet video and other Web applications that compete with their core businesses.

But the rules also give broadband providers flexibility to manage data on their systems to deal with problems such as network congestion and unwanted traffic such as spam - as long as they publicly disclose their policies and practices. The regulations also back away from moves to extend more federal control over the fast-growing wireless industry.

Although the regulations are seen as decidedly more business-friendly than a proposal the chairman outlined in October 2009, reaction was mixed in the industry.

Verizon was considering a lawsuit, according to some reports.

Tom Tauke, Verizon executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communications, said the company was still studying the FCC action, but that the company was "deeply concerned" about the vote.

"Based on today's announcement, the FCC appears to assert broad authority for sweeping new regulation of broadband wire-line and wireless networks and the Internet itself," he said. "This assertion of authority without solid statutory underpinnings will yield continued uncertainty for industry, innovators and investors. In the long run, that is harmful to consumers and the nation."

Disappointment also was palpable among strong net neutrality advocates: Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, the two Democratic appointees to the FCC board, voted for the plan, but said they would have preferred a stronger regulatory regime.

"There is more I would have liked in this order," Mr. Copps said.

Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat who has called for tough federal guidelines on net neutrality, said the rules approved Tuesday are "inadequate to protect consumers or preserve the free and open Internet."

Across the Internet, net neutrality advocates and Internet activists echoed Mr. Franken.

"We are deeply disappointed that the chairman chose to ignore the overwhelming public support for real net neutrality, instead moving forward with industry-written rules that will for the first time in Internet history allow discrimination online," wrote Craig Aaron, managing director of the left-leaning Free Press, a media reform group that has called for more regulation.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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