FCC Republicans slam brakes on net neutrality, but this wagon ain't slowing

Stop! This Open Internet proposal. It is not ready yet

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The two Republican commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have formally called for this week's vote on net neutrality to be delayed.

The US watchdog's panel of commissioners are due to approve or reject FCC chairman Tom Wheeler's secret proposals to regulate internet access in America as if it is a phone service. These so-called net neutrality rules will make it tough for telcos to discriminate web traffic, such as prioritizing a rich, paying website's video streams over a lowly startup's. The ISPs say the plans are unworkable.

In a joint statement on Monday, commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly argue that "the future of the entire internet [is] at stake" and so there should be "a reasonable period of not less than 30 days to carefully study it."

As such, they also call for the vote, planned for this Thursday, to be delayed, citing a similar situation in 2003 when two Democratic commissioners called for a vote delay and publication of rules surrounding media ownership rules.

"We urge our colleagues to join us and allow the American people to review the proposed Internet regulations before we hold a vote. To do anything less puts at risk the Internet and all of the benefits it brings to the American people," the statement argues.

Unfortunately, back in 2003 the request by Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein was refused by FCC chair Michael Powell, who at the time responded in a statement: "There is precedent for granting such a request, but it is not customary to do so over the strong objections of majority of commissioners who are prepared to proceed."

Which brings into question whether the other two (Democratic) commissioners are prepared to "strongly object" to a delay of the vote. It seems highly unlikely that today's FCC chairman will agree to a delay.

Partisan

Unfortunately the issue of the rules designed to protect consumers from cable companies abusing their position as gatekeepers to millions of internet users has become increasingly partisan – and hence unreasonable – in recent weeks.

At the same time that Pai published the reasonable formal request for a delay, he also penned an op-ed in Politico that takes a very difference approach.

In it, Pai connects the open internet rules to political freedom of expression and even quotes Ronald Reagan.

Pai's main argument that the application of large swathes of so-called Title II legislation is a matter of government overreach is finding a lot of support, particularly among Republicans. Likewise, the fact that Wheeler has refused to make the rules public before a vote is taken.

Beyond that, however, Pai treads a line familiar to observers of partisan politics in the US, by conflating possibilities with realities and, in your correspondent's opinion, introducing more than a little fear, uncertainty and doubt into the discussion.

"For the past two decades, internet freedom has been a remarkable success story," he starts his piece. "It has given the American people unprecedented access to information and an amazing array of opportunities to speak, debate and connect with one another. Its potential seems infinite as internet companies expand services, technologists invent ever more life-enhancing applications and increasing numbers of Americans go online."

But the FCC wants to change all that. Why? "Unfortunately, some see any realm of freedom as a vacuum in need of government control," he writes. Also: "The purpose is control for control’s sake."

And it's a conspiracy: "Digital dysfunction must be conjured into being to justify a public-sector power grab."

It's also Washington-as-usual: "…this Beltway-centric plan also distracts the FCC from what it should be focusing on: increasing broadband competition and giving consumers better broadband choices."

Innovation? Check. Freedom? Check.

If this seems like a list of every Republican bugbear, that's because it is. The regulation is "heavy-handed"; it will stop companies from supplying new services and limit innovation; it will slow down investment.

And then the real kicker: it will stop Americans from being able to share their beliefs. Well, sort of. Pai connects the FCC's rules with discussions at the Federal Election Committee.

"While the FCC is inserting government bureaucracy into all aspects of internet access, the FEC is debating whether to regulate internet content, specifically political speech posted for free online," Pai wrote.

The FEC is looking at online political opinions and in particular how political groups are using the internet to bypass existing controls of what they can and can't say and do. The case was sparked by a number of YouTube videos that some felt crossed the line. Ultimately, the FEC decides not to extend rules, and from that Pai draws his connection.

"The bottom line is that internet freedom works. It is difficult to imagine where we would be today had the government micromanaged the Internet for the past two decades as it does Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service," he writes.

"Neither of us wants to find out where the internet will be two decades from now if the federal government tightens its regulatory grip. We don’t need to shift control of the internet to bureaucracies in Washington. Let’s leave the power where it belongs - with the American people."

The article finishes off with a quote from God (well, the political equivalent for Republicans).

"When it comes to Americans’ ability to access online content or offer political speech online, there isn’t anything broken for the government to 'fix.' To paraphrase President Ronald Reagan, internet regulation isn’t the solution to a problem. Internet regulation is the problem."

The vote on new net neutrality rules is planned for this Thursday and will likely pass 3-2. Expect a lot of noise this week and after. ®

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