FCC to Take on Telecoms in Fight for the Future of the Internet

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski didn’t mention Net Neutrality when he went before a House subcommittee on Thursday (Sept. 17). The subject will be front and center on Monday (Sept. 21) when Genachowski is expected to give a speech announcing the Commission will vote in October to start a Net Neutrality rulemaking.

Combined with the announcement at the hearing from House Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) that he supports Net Neutrality and will support the Net Neutrality legislation proposed by Reps. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), it looks as if the issue which many people waited for a while to take off is finally gaining some momentum.

This will be the largest telecom fight in 14 years, and one well worth fighting. The Internet was created at a time when it was against the law for telephone companies to play favorites with the traffic that went over its network. Now, there are cable and wireless networks, along with the telephone company broadband platform that all have some piece of connections to the Internet, and no legal protections apply to any of it.

In a sense, this FCC rulemaking would help return to the basic legal principles that allowed the Internet to grow and to thrive, and to the environment which led to all the investment, not only in the network, but to all of the software and services on the “edge” of the network that we have today, whether it’s a Google or Yahoo! or Amazon, or any of the hundreds and thousands of small, innovative companies. The proverbial “level playing field” finally will be leveled by rules or by a law, and not at the whim of the telecom companies which control the on-ramps to the Internet in a market in which there is very little competition.

Make no mistake. Simply because the FCC announces an action, the contest won’t be confined to the Commission. Congress will become involved, and from the comments at the hearing of the Communications Subcommittee, the Republicans are ready to rumble. The Republican members, as usual, were forthright in expressing their opposition, as a half-dozen of them did, warning about threats to innovation and investment from an open, non-discriminatory Internet. It’s a tough argument unless you’re a phone or cable company or are subservient to one.

It would have been nice at the hearing had someone backed up Waxman’s announcement with some of their own thoughts. Waxman’s announcement was closely held, but even so, it would have provided a good opportunity for the Democratic members to support publicly the concept of Net Neutrality. Waxman’s announcement will also serve to put the telephone company Democratic acolytes on the Commerce Committee, like AT&T’s Reps. Charlie Gonzales or Verizon’s Eliot Engel, on notice that they may be required to choose between their Committee chairman and their corporate sponsors.

Genachowski, for his part, didn’t even broach the subject in his prepared testimony or in answers to questions. He spent more time on the FCC website and Commission reform than on the need for an open and non-discriminatory Internet. Without giving anything away, he could have voiced some support for Net Neutrality on general principle, if for no other reason than to give something back to its opponents.

Besides Net Neutrality, the other major issue of the day did get a mention. The Fairness Doctrine was raised up again, as a follow-up to the attacks by Glenn Beck and other conservative commentators on the appointment of Mark Lloyd as the FCC’s diversity officer.

Genachowski did address this one in his testimony, saying: “I have also learned a few things during my brief tenure as Chairman. For one, repeating relentlessly is sometimes necessary. I do not support reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine either through a front door or a back door. I believe deeply in the First Amendment and oppose any effort to censor or impose speech on the basis of political viewpoint or opinion.”

Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) was one of those taking a Fairness Doctrine shot, saying that it wasn’t an issue until liberals brought it up. Perhaps he missed Beck, Michael Savage and others calling Lloyd a neo-Nazi and saying he wanted to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), a former broadcaster, took his attacks from the right-wing playbook. He said there shouldn’t be a “speech czar” at the Commission, and that he didn’t recall having anyone quite so “strongly opinionated” in a similar position at the FCC. Lloyd, during a career as a public interest advocate, had said broadcasters want spectrum without responsibility, to which Walden took offense.

Genachowski stepped up well to defend Lloyd, saying Lloyd, defending Lloyd’s credentials, telling Walden Lloyd wasn’t working on fairness doctrine or broadcasting issues or “censorship” issues, and that many diverse points of view are needed on the Commission staff. Lloyd’s job will be to make sure that broadband policy helps every part of the country. Walden should be pleased that someone is looking out for rural Oregon, even if he isn’t pleased that Genachowski declined to throw Lloyd under the bus. The chairman stood up as he was supposed to for Mark Lloyd, and on Monday he will stand tall again for another worthwhile cause. 

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