A Free and Open Internet: The Latest from the Frontlines

Wednesday's announcement by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler that the FCC would write new rules to insure open access to the Internet -- otherwise known as Net neutrality -- generally was seen by consumers as a step in the right direction. But media reform advocates were concerned that it didn't go far enough.

Wednesday's announcement by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler that the FCC would write new rules to insure open access to the Internet -- otherwise known as Net neutrality -- generally was seen by consumers as a step in the right direction. But media reform advocates were concerned that it didn't go far enough.

As The New York Times'Edward Wyatt reported, Wheeler's new plan "represents a reboot of sorts for the FCC.

Two previous efforts were thrown out by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the first in a 2010 case filed by Comcast. Despite the ruling, Comcast agreed to follow the rules as a condition of its purchase of NBCUniversal. Comcast said last week that this agreement would extend to its purchase of Time Warner Cable.

In another case, brought by Verizon, a federal appeals court ruled last month that a similar set of the F.C.C.'s rules illegally treated Internet service providers as regulated utilities, like telephone companies. But the court said that the commission did have authority to oversee Internet service in ways that encourage competition.

Rather than appeal that most recent decision, in his announcement, Wheeler wrote that he saw the affirmation of the FCC's authority as an "invitation" from the court to propose rules "that will meet the court's test for preventing improper blocking of and discrimination among Internet traffic, ensuring genuine transparency in how Internet Service Providers manage traffic, and enhancing competition."

He continued, "Preserving the Internet as an open platform for innovation and expression while providing certainty and predictability in the marketplace is an important responsibility of this agency," and mentioned a recent meeting with start-up entrepreneurs in California:

Their companies may succeed or they may fail depending on whether they are truly creative and innovative. But they and other innovators cannot be judged on their own merits if they are unfairly prevented from harnessing the full power of the Internet, which would harm the virtuous cycle of innovation that has benefitted consumers, edge providers, and broadband networks.

Opposition from Republicans on the commission and in the House of Representatives was quick. GOP Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said, "Instead of fostering investment and innovation through deregulation, the FCC will be devoting its resources to adopting new rules without any evidence that consumers are unable to access the content of their choice," and his Republican colleague Ajit Pai wrote, "Today's announcement reminds me of the movie Groundhog Day. I am skeptical that this effort will end any differently from the last."

Meanwhile, Michigan Congressman Fred Upton, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee denounced the decision: "The Obama administration refuses to abandon its furious pursuit of these harmful policies to put government in charge of the Web."

Media reformers were dissatisfied as well, but for different reasons; worried that the new rule changes still will face court challenges, as well as other political and industry interference unless the FCC reclassifies the Internet as a telecommunications service that can be regulated, as television, radio and telephones already are. Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the media policy group Free Press said, "If the FCC ultimately fails to act decisively the open Internet will be damaged for good. The American people want the FCC to stand up for them -- and reclassifying broadband is the best way to protect all of us. That's the message millions of people have sent the FCC and the Obama administration. Our voices will get louder unless and until policymakers in Washington take action and protect free speech online."

ColorofChange Executive Director Rashad Robinson declared, "Any plan that does not include reclassification allows corporate gatekeepers like Comcast and Verizon to block, slow down and choose which voices and viewpoints are heard." His and Craig Aaron's words were echoed by former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now with Common Cause, who said he welcomed Chairman Wheeler's prompt response to the latest court decision but that he continued to believe that "reclassification is, by far, the surest and best way to guarantee consumer protections and free speech online. I hope the Commission will get there soon."

Chairman Wheeler did note that he reserves the right to reconsider and reclassify the Internet as a telecommunications service if the new rules don't work or are otherwise obstructed. After a period for public comment, the full commission should vote on his proposed rewrite by early summer.

And somewhat buried toward the end of Wednesday's statement from Wheeler was another piece of potential good news: "The Commission will look for opportunities to enhance Internet access competition. One obvious candidate for close examination... legal restrictions on the ability of cities and towns to offer broadband services to consumers in their communities."

According to The Washington Post, the FCC may "investigate state-level laws banning the rollout of city-built broadband networks. Many cities, such as Longmont, Colo., and Chattanooga, Tenn., have tried to construct their versions of Google Fiber and to run them like public utilities -- much to the frustration of incumbent cable companies and other large Internet providers that view the upstarts as potential competitors."

Author and communications lawyer Susan Crawford, who appeared as a guest on Moyers & Company a year ago, approves of Wheeler's move. Writing in the Financial Times, she notes, "He is rightly seeking to replicate the efforts of many small communities across America to create their own wholesale fiber infrastructure. A similar approach has proved successful in Stockholm and Seoul. This would loosen the grip of the cable monopolies on America's future."

Wheeler's statement was accompanied by an FCC fact sheet well worth reading on how Internet growth and investment have "flourished" under the rules of net neutrality. See it here.

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