Catching Flak On Neutrality

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The Federal Communications Commission’s Democratic majority was catching it from all sides — well, mostly from one side — last week as it prepared to unveil chairman Julius Genachowski’s proposal to expand and codify network-neutrality guidelines.

With the backing of President Obama and the support of his two Democratic colleagues on the commission, Genachowski last month said he planned to expand the FCC’s four Internet-openness principles to include expressly preventing service providers from discriminating in the provision of content or applications — there would still be a carve-out for network management — and expressly requiring them to tell customers how they were managing their networks. The chairman also plans to codify all the guidelines and apply them to wireless broadband, he said.

A source who had seen the draft proposal told Multichannel News it was unclear just how big a network management carve-out there would be from anti-discrimination rules, and how that would be defined. That uncertainty had critics firing off the letters to Genachowski and company.

The chairman has said they are meant to be rules of the road for a smooth trip on the information superhighway, and would be instituted only after lots of input.

As the date for voting on the proposal (Oct. 22) approached last week, Genachowski was dodging a lot of oncoming cars — in the form of Republican lawmakers, at least one Democratic governor and a coalition of diversity groups.

All had questions or criticisms about the proposal and its effects on investment, deployment and whether it would widen, rather than close, the digital divide. They were joined by free-market think tanks that continued to warn about disincenting investment.

While the two Republican commissioners were keeping their own counsel, a source familiar with their thinking said the GOP members felt they were not sufficiently included in the drafting process and were presented with what amount to a fait accompli.

The chairman briefed the commissioners on the Friday before his Sept. 21 speech at the Brookings Institution where he unveiled the proposal. The draft has circulated for a couple of weeks, with commissioners free to make comments and edits.

Genachowski had no comment on the letters last week, but his support for network neutrality should come as no surprise. He helped develop an Obama campaign platform that included network neutrality and talked of preserving network openness at his confirmation hearing in the Senate — though he did not volunteer his network neutrality plans in a House FCC oversight hearing days before the announcement.

Network neutrality has taken away some of the collegial, honeymoon feel from the commission — no surprise for an issue that’s generated lots of heat and lobbying dollars over the past several years.

“This is a major policy shift,” an FCC source familiar with the Republican members’ thinking said. “This is something that ideally should have started with: 'Let’s have all the lawyers sit down together and come up with some constructive ideas on how to move forward,’ and that didn’t happen.”