Net Neutrality: FCC Set to Approve Proposal

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The FCC is expected to grudgingly accept Chairman Julius Genachowski's plan to make the agency, for the first time, a cop on the high-speed Internet beat.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote Tuesday on Genachowski's "net neutrality" proposal, crafted by FCC staff after months of lobbying by the most powerful media and communications companies in the world, to prevent broadband service providers from censoring how individuals and organizations can surf the Internet's fastest pipes.

Genachowski's proposal has been derided from the left as a giveaway to corporations and from the right as unwarranted government meddling in business. Both of Genachowski's two Democratic colleagues on the five-member FCC said they wish this rule included stronger consumer protections. But they both have decided it's better than nothing and have pledged to support the plan.

In announcing he would vote in favor of the rule, Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, said it "could represent an important milestone in the ongoing struggle to safeguard the awesome opportunity-creating power of the open Internet."

"While I cannot vote wholeheartedly to approve the item, I will not block it by voting against it," Copps said in a statement released today. "I instead plan to concur so that we may move forward."

The two Republicans on the commission have said they plan to vote "no" because they think the rule goes too far.

One of them, Robert McDowell, wrote in today's Wall Street Journal that the "jaw-dropping interventionist chutzpah" of this proposal "may end up marking the beginning of a long winter's night for Internet freedom."

One quirk of the FCC is that the agency does not release to the public exactly what is being brought to a vote. We won't be able to read this new rule until a couple days after the vote.

But Genachowski outlined his principles in a speech earlier this month, declaring the coming rule "an important milestone in our effort to protect Internet freedom and openness."

Genachowski said the plan would ban any company from blocking or otherwise discriminating against legal content that poses no risk to a network.

In statements emailed to reporters this afternoon Consumers Union policy counsel Parul P. Desai said "The FCC is moving the ball forward" and Mark Cooper, Director of Research at the Consumer Federation of America, said it "could be an important milestone."

But both said they wish it included tougher protections for users of mobile services.

Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a public interest group that focuses on digital isues, emailed that, "The actions by the Federal Communications Commission fall far short of what they could have been."

"Instead of a rule that would protect everyone, from consumers to applications developers, from predatory practices of telephone and cable companies, the commission settled for much less," Sohn wrote. "Instead of strong, firm rules providing clear protections, the Commission created a vague and shifting landscape open to interpretation. Consumers deserved better."

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn, attacked the proposal today as "worse than nothing" because it excludes mobile networks that are used on increasingly popular smartphones and tablets.

The plan also recognizes the right of service providers to "reasonable network management" and "usage-based pricing." That means online service providers can charge people more for using certain services that require a lot of bandwidth.

Franken said he fears that means corporations will reserve online "fast lanes" for themselves.

"Imagine if a cable news network could get its website to load faster on your computer than your favorite local political blog. Imagine if big corporations with their own agenda could decide who wins or loses online. The Internet as we know it would cease to exist," Franken wrote. "That's why net neutrality is the most important free speech issue of our time."

While campaigning at Google before the election, President Obama vowed, "I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality.

"Because once providers start to privilege some applications over others then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose," Obama said. "The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history. And we have to keep it that way."

Today Franken wrote, "Grassroots supporters of net neutrality are beginning to wonder if we've been had."