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The Nation

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

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."


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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

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

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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