FCC’s Net Neutrality Workshop Stacked With Pro-Regulation Speakers

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Veteran communications attorney Bob Corn-Revere faced off against a panel of fans of network-neutrality regulations at the first workshop on the effects of the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed expansion and codification of net-neutrality guidelines.

In effect it was seven against one as academics, network-neutrality activists and creators of independent content aimed at minority audiences talked about the need for the regulations to keep deep-pocketed industry gatekeepers from blocking speech or pricing it out of the reach of the next big innovation.

As far as he was concerned, Corn-Revere said, a government attempt to regulate the Internet space was more dangerous than allowing market forces to govern it. It was the market that helped facilitate some of the vibrant speech represented by his fellow panelists, the attorney argued.

As an example of the problems with government regulation of communication, he pointed to the longstanding prohibition on telephone companies delivering video services.

He said that imposing new regulations would work in the opposite directions of court decisions that viewed regulation as a threat to the open Internet, particularly in targeting perceived future harms. The question now, as technology continues to change, is whether a hands-off approach or new regulations would be better, he said. He clearly sided with the former, but it was all hands on deck for the other side of the argument.

Hardly was heard a discouraging word among a chorus of proponents of network-neutrality regulation who shared the workshop panel. He even briefly had to fight a fire alarm that appeared to go off in the background, though moderator Stuart Benjamin said he could have an extra 30 seconds if he needed it.

“I didn’t realize that when I went to the FCC to talk about the First Amendment it would set off alarms,” Corn-Revere told Multichannel News after the workshop. “It just goes to show you shouldn’t shout about 'network neutrality’ in a crowded federal agency.”

Yale Law School Professor Jack Balkin, said that the First Amendment is all about participation, which he called the Internet’s “gift to mankind.” But he said that participation means little if you have to get permission. He said the net is a way to “route around network gatekeepers.” Network-neutrality regulations, he argued, are necessary to preserve that gift of participation from private entities whose natural tendency is to favor their own business interests and shareholders.

He was seconded by Andrew Schwartzman of Media Access Project, who suggested the harms were neither perceived nor future. He cited several examples, including Verizon Communications blocking an anti-abortion message and Comcast being accused of impeding BitTorrent traffic. As to there only being a few examples, he said what is known is only the tip of the iceberg, that it will become increasingly difficult to uncover those instances and that the “greatest danger” is from what blockages we have not known about or do not now know about.

Joining in support of net-neutrality regulations were Michele Combs of the Christian Coalition; Glenn Reynolds of the Instapundit blog; Jonathan Moore of minority-targeted online site Rowdy Orbit; Ruth Livier, writer and online content producer; and Garlin Gilchrist of the Center for Community Change.

Even before the hearing, Scott Cleland, president of NetCompetition.org, was anticipating the thrust of the panel. “The political charge that broadband providers are a threat to free speech is a huge stretch,” he said in a conference call on the issue, according to a transcript. “First of all, broadband providers are communications companies that enable free speech and communications literally quadrillions of times each year. They are among the single biggest enablers of free speech in the world. So this is kind of an odd kind of focus on this.”

Benjamin joined the commission last week as the FCC’s new, and newly controversial, Distinguished Scholar in residence. And while he was getting harsh criticism from one legislator on Capitol Hill Tuesday, he was being welcomed — it was his first day — by both Republican and Democratic members of the commission on hand for the workshop.

That was seconded later in the week at an FCC meeting, when he received praise from both FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and commissioner Robert McDowell.

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