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A Free and Open Internet: The Latest from the Frontlines

Media reform advocates are concerned that FCC proposed reforms don't go far enough.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Sergey Nivens

 
 
 
 

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.”