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America Needs Real Net Neutrality, Not a False Promise from a Compromising FCC Chair

by John Nichols

When Barack Obama was running for president, he made Net Neutrality an issue -- pledging to defend the core values of a free and open Internet by assuring that all Americans would have equal access to all websites and to all the promise of this digital age.

Asked in 2007 if he would "make it a priority in your first year of office to re-instate Net Neutrality as the law of the land" and "pledge to only appoint FCC commissioners that support open Internet principles like Net Neutrality," candidate Obama responded by saying: "I am a strong supporter of net neutrality," said Obama. "What you've been seeing is some lobbying that says [Internet providers] should be able to be gatekeepers and able to charge different rates to different websites... so you could get much better quality from the Fox News site and you'd be getting rotten service from the mom and pop sites. And that I think destroys one of the best things about the Internet -- which is that there is this incredible equality there... as president I'm going to make sure that is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward."

That commitment made Obama a favorite contender among tech-savvy voters in general and especially among young voters who see through the spin of telecommunications corporations that seek to do away with Net Neutrality so they can choose which websites consumers could easily and effectively access -- based on whether the owners of the sites paid the providers top dollar.

There was never any question that Obama understood the issues involved.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Obama still talks a good game regarding Net Neutrality, the man he appointed to chair the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, is proposing a "Net Neutrality" rule that bares scant resemblance to what candidate Obama promised.

Genachowski's plan, which he unveiled Wednesday and which he wants the FCC to vote on December 21, does not restore Net Neutrality as it existed before a Republican-dominated FCC took steps to undermine the principle, nor does it guarantee Internet freedom and flexibility. (You can read Genachowski's plan here.)

An analysis being circulated by the Save the Internet Coalition asserts that Genachowski's "proposed rule is riddled with loopholes, and falls far short of what's necessary to prevent phone and cable companies from turning the Internet into cable TV: where they decide what moves fast, what moves slow, and whether they can price gouge you or not: a shiny jewel for companies like AT&T and Comcast."

Specifically, the analysis argues that the chairman's proposal:

  1. Fails to restore the FCC's authority over Internet service providers (ISP's) like Comcast and AT&T. This guarantees that the new rules, if passed, will be swiftly rejected by the courts. Any other future rules related to the Internet, such as competition policy (that would give you more choices than your expensive monopoly cable and phone company) would suffer the same fate if the Chairman continues to avoid the simple procedure that would restore his agency's authority.
  2. Allows the loophole of 'specialized services,' which effectively allows these companies to split the Internet into fast and slow lanes that Net Neutrality is trying to prevent. To make matters worse, the proposal has weak protections against "paid prioritization". That is, ISP's charging content providers extra to get their product to move quicker across the Net than others'.
  3. Fails to make even Genachowski's tepid protections apply to wireless connections. With the inevitable explosion of super-fast wireless Internet connections during the next decade, it represents the most blatant sellout to the likes of Verizon and AT&T. Both companies view wireless Internet and phone service as the future of their companies. And both companies are amongst Washington's biggest spenders on PR firms, lobbyists and campaign contributions.

Josh Silver, the president of Free Press (the media-reform group he co-founded with Robert McChesney and this writer), says Genochowski's proposal is "not even close to the real Net Neutrality that President Obama promised the American people."

In fact, he calls the chairman's plan "fake Net Neutrality."

Silver complains that: "AT&T and Comcast... have met with the Chairman more than anyone else during the past month, and whose affection he seems to crave more than making good on President Obama's promise."

So should defenders of a free and open Internet give up? Should we accept defeat in the fight for genuine Net Neutrality?

Not yet. Genachowski is just one of five FCC commissioners.

There is a Democratic majority on the commission, made up of the chairman (an Obama appointee), Mignon Clyburn (another Obama appointee) and Michael Copps (who has served on the commission since 2001).

Copps has been a stalwart defender of Net Neutrality, and Clyburn has tended to side with him on the issue.

The two Republican commissioners -- Robert McDowell and Meredith Baker -- have been critical of even the tepid initiatives Genachowski proposes.

So, as Silver says, "Copps and Clyburn are the 'deciders' for the next three weeks, and they have both demonstrated over and over that their top priority is the interests of the American people."

If Genachowski wants to advance Net Neutrality rules, he will have to have Copps and Clyburn on board. That leaves room for serious negotiation, and for serious improvement of the proposal put forward by the chairman.

The power rests to some extent with Copps and Clyburn, but it rests to an even greater extent with the millions of Americans who want the free and open Internet that candidate Obama promised. That's going to require a lot of digital activism. This is where the Save the Internet Coalition comes in. It's a big-tent group that includes Free Press, the American Library Association,  Common Cause, Consumers Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Media Access Project, the Consumer Project on Technology and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, among dozens of other professional, labor, community and consumer groups.

If this coalition -- and all the Americans who want an Internet that serves not just the big telecommunications companies but the civic and democratic aspirations of citizens -- response to the Save the Internet call, America won't have to settle for fake Net Neutrality. We can have the real thing, and we can realize the full promise of the Internet.

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