12/21/2010 02:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Net Neutrality, In: FCC Votes To Adopt New Open Internet Order

After much public debate, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on Dec. 21 to adopt the proposed Open Internet order on "net neutrality" aimed at creating "three basic rules: transparency, no blocking, and no unreasonable discrimination." The new rules address consumer, innovation and investor concerns regarding broadband Internet services and also touch upon mobile Internet services. The Associated Press noted that the "new 'net neutrality' rules...prohibit phone and cable companies from abusing their control over broadband connections to discriminate against rival content or services, such as Internet phone calls or online video, or play favorites with Web traffic."

In laymen terms, this order prohibits your broadband provider from deciding what gets filtered through to your computer screen. The FCC's chairman, Julius Genachowski, outlined the framework for net neutrality earlier this month, leading to a much publicized debate about the role of the government in regulating Internet access. The proposal also faced fierce opposition from the commission's two Republicans, Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker. Baker dubbed Genachowski's efforts a "highly interventionist course, adding that the net neutrality agenda had been compromised "by pushing forward with a partisan, big-government regulatory issue that has no immediate need for us to act."

While groups including Public Knowledge, Free Press and Media Access Project have also expressed concern, they worry over whether the plan goes far enough and call into question whether broadband providers won't turn to "prioritizing" Web traffic. This practice would be akin to Web advertising platforms like Google AdWords, which take bids from advertisers and rank their sites accordingly in search results.

"The actions by the Federal Communications Commission fall far short of what they could have been," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. "Instead of strong, firm rules providing clear protections, the commission, created a vague and shifting landscape open to interpretation."

Today, Chairman Genachowski said that "we're adopting rules of the road that strike the right balance," adding that "our action will advance our goal of having America's broadband networks be the freest and fastest in the world. And our action will ensure Internet freedom at home, a foundation of our argument for Internet freedom around the world."

Genachowski also outlined the six key principles of the newly adopted order:

1) Transparency. Consumers and innovators have a right to know the basic performance characteristics of their Internet access and how their network is being managed.

2) No Blocking. A right to send and receive lawful traffic. This prohibits blocking of lawful content, apps, services, and the connection of non-harmful devices to the network

3) Level Playing Field. A right to a level playing field. A ban on unreasonable discrimination. No approval for so-called "pay for priority" arrangements involving fast lanes for some companies but not others.

4) Network Management. An allowance for broadband providers to engage in reasonable network management. These rules don't forbid providers from offering subscribers tiers of service or charging based on bandwidth consumed.

5) Mobile. Broadly applicable rules requiring transparency for mobile broadband providers, and prohibiting them from blocking websites and certain competitive applications.

6) Vigilance. Creation of an Open Internet Advisory Committee to assist the Commission in monitoring the state of Internet openness and the effects of our rules.

According to Wharton legal studies professor Kevin Werbach, "the fate of network neutrality will hinge not on the FCC's rhetoric, but on its implementation. There can't be implementation without an order." Werbach believes that while the new order will not make both sides sigh with relief, it's a necessary step in the process toward other changes in the future.

How has this issue played out across the public relations industry?

One prime example is how AT&T, Bell South Communications and Qualcomm have leveraged public relations and consulting firms like Navigators Global, in lobbying against new rules at the FCC Navigators' principal, Cesar Conda, a former economic policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, predicted that a new net neutrality rule would hurt jobs and investments. Additionally, according to a Verizon funded report, "there haven't been enough examples of harm to the marketplace or market failure to warrant a new rule." As this article is being written, the Associated Press reports that analysts believe that telecom stocks are unlikely to fluctuate because the legislation was "looser than expected."

The full effects of lobbyists on the outcome of the vote are not immediately measurable aside from the similarity in messaging from their comments to that of opponents of the new order. However, it's plausible that their intended effects have been mitigated through the public affairs efforts of the FCC and politicization of the issue. The public debate has created a cacophony of opinions, which detracted from the deciding factor: on a five person committee, majority rules.

Which side of the net neutrality debate do you fall on and why?

Full disclosure: the Wharton School is a client of my firm, M Booth & Associates.