New FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski threw down the network neutrality gauntlet in a speech today [PDF] [HTML] at the Brookings Institution, announcing his intention to start a formal process that would result in adoption of binding regulations. [There is good news and blog coverage from AP, Wired, and Washington Post.] His proposal would turn the FCC’s existing advisory guidelines, known somewhat ridiculously as the “Four Freedoms” (begging unflattering comparison with a much more significant quartet) into rules governed by six principles. Quick statements of support from two other commissioners, longtime net neutrality supporter Michael Copps and new member Mignon Clyburn, demonstrated that Genachowski has the three out of five votes he needs to prevail.
The two additional principles are extremely important aspects of the plan. First, a “nondiscrimination” principle would embody the heart of the concerns expressed by activists for free speech and end-to-end openness who warned that providers would begin to offer preferential treatment to some content based on the identity of the sender, either to extract fees for high-speed delivery or to block competition. Second, a “transparency” principle addresses the concern I’ve always expressed: consumers and regulators can’t find out about ISPs’ traffic-shaping. As if the formal rule and the new principles weren’t enough, Genachowski also said he would apply the new regime to wireless as well as broadband carriers.
This will be a major fight, probably the most significant battle we have seen within the federal government over the structure of the internet.
A few other observations after the jump:
Language: Genachowski appears to avoid the language of “network neutrality.” He prefers to talk about a “free and open internet.” I don’t think it means much substantively, but it suggests he is thinking carefully about how to present these complex ideas to the wider public.
Characterizing Supporters: The story was leaked in advance to the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, which all run stories over the weekend. I could not help but notice that the Journal cast the entire debate in terms of telecoms (like AT&T or Verizon) against content providers (like Google or Amazon), making no mention whatsoever of the grass roots citizen activism on the issue. The Times, meanwhile, did just the opposite, painting the dispute only as a corporate vs. consumer one without ever noting the interest of big content providers in getting federal regulation of internet access. Both portraits are grossly inaccurate, of course.
The Need for Action: Genachowski strongly refuted the argument often made by telecoms that there are not serious access problems (yet) so action on network neutrality is premature. He said:
Saying nothing — and doing nothing — would impose its own form of unacceptable cost. It would deprive innovators and investors of confidence that the free and open Internet we depend upon today will still be here tomorrow. It would deny the benefits of predictable rules of the road to all players in the Internet ecosystem. And it would be a dangerous retreat from the core principle of openness — the freedom to innovate without permission — that has been a hallmark of the Internet since its inception, and has made it so stunningly successful as a platform for innovation, opportunity, and prosperity.
Details, details: Boy oh boy is the devil in the details on this one! There are so many questions about implementation. For example, under the plan the FCC would evaluate cases under the nondiscrimination principle on a case-by-case basis, so we may not know precisely what’s allowed for a long time to come. Also, there would continue to be “reasonable” exceptions to allow for network management, but how much scope would wireless broadband providers have to constrain bandwidth-hogging applications, especially at peak times? And Eric Goldman just tweeted about the tension between network neutrality and Section 230 immunity. And those are just the first ones that come to mind. This is going to be a doozy…