THE BLOG
12/02/2010 03:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Fight for Net Neutrality Begins

Tuesday night I stayed up late, working on a grad school recommendation for one of my Public Knowledge colleagues. As usual, my Twitter feed was open, and right around midnight, I heard an unusual amount of chirping for that hour. Why? Tech reporters were writing that the FCC had just announced that its December 21st meeting agenda would propose rules for an open Internet, or network neutrality. The Chairman would circulate draft rules and an accompanying explanation, or order, to his colleagues, which would then be voted on in the December meeting.

Yes, the midnight announcement was quite odd, and I was not happy that I was faced with a decision to wake up Public Knowledge's Communications Director Art Brodsky soon thereafter to send out our press release. But I was also excited -- after five long years of fighting for rules of the road that will ensure that the Internet remains the most open and democratic medium of all time, the process for turning those rules into the law of the land had finally begun.

That the circulation of an FCC order to the other commissioners is the beginning, and not the end, of this process, is important to emphasize here. We have a good sense of what is in the order that is now circulating, and while there is a lot of good in it, it still falls appreciably short of the kind of rules that Public Knowledge believes is necessary to preserve an Internet that has proven, in Chairman Genachowski's own words spoken today, "to be such a powerful engine for innovation, creativity and economic growth." That is why over the next three weeks, Public Knowledge will be working with the other commissioners (and more specifically, Commissioners Copps and Clyburn, since Commissioners McDowell and Baker have both said today that they will not support ANY rules) strengthen the current draft rules and order to ensure that they will give the FCC the ability to protect consumers and the open Internet.

So what does Public Knowledge want improved? Three things:

1. The rules governing wireless Internet access must be strengthened. Since the FCC's rules largely follow the never-introduced legislative framework developed by Representative Henry Waxman, we know that the rules for wireline and wireless broadband Internet access are treated differently. Under that framework, wireline Internet access providers are prohibited from "unjustly or unreasonably" discriminating when transmitting traffic. Wireless Internet access providers are only prohibited from blocking "lawful Internet websites" or "lawful applications that compete with the provider's voice or video telephony services,..." This sets up a world with two Internets, one wired and one wireless, which in turn disproportionately affects people of color and America's poor, who tend to rely more on mobile wireless broadband. The FCC can fix this situation first by prohibiting a broadband access provider from blocking any lawful application, service, content or device and then can provide either a technological (for example, 4G wireless) or time-limited (for example, one year) glide path to full non-discrimination.

2. Cable and telephone companies providing broadband Internet access should be prohibited from evading net neutrality obligations by providing pay-for-play "specialized" services. The Waxman proposal allows broadband Internet access providers to use part of their broadband "pipe" for so-called "specialized services" that would allow a content or service provider to pay for faster speeds and better service. Public Knowledge does not oppose broadband providers engaging in specialized services so long as those services don't interfere with the growth of, or cannibalize the open broadband Internet. However, the Waxman proposal, adopted by the FCC Chairman, does not provide adequate protections for the open Internet. The FCC can solve this problem by simply defining the term "broadband Internet access service" in a way that is commonly recognized by policymakers and engineers and which deters access providers from gaming the system.

3. Paid Prioritization should be presumptively unreasonable. The Waxman proposal says nothing about whether a broadband access provider can sell "Quality of Service" (QoS) guarantees to application, content and service providers to ensure that their services load faster and/or with less jitter than competitors. By prohibiting only "unjust and unreasonable" discrimination, access providers will surely make the case that so long as they offer QoS to everyone on non-discriminatory prices, terms and conditions, such prioritization is allowed. While the order accompanying the rules has some language expressing the Commission's concern with paid prioritization, that language should be strengthened to shift the burden on the broadband access provider to demonstrate why such prioritization is necessary and why it is in the public interest.

Public Knowledge's difficult decision to support the Waxman framework was predicated on the assurances of the Congressman and his staff that the proposal was a floor, and not a ceiling for FCC action if the framework was not enacted into law. Right now, the FCC is at the floor, and the only place to go is up.