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FCC Calls off Net Neutrality Negotiations

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has called off negotiations on a network neutrality compromise schedule for the coming days, saying the talks have not been fruitful enough.

The FCC's decision to cancel this round of negotiations comes after news reports late Wednesday that Google and Verizon Communications were close to their own deal on network management practices.

The negotiations have been "productive on several fronts," Edward Lazarus, the FCC's chief of staff, said in a statement. However, the discussions have "not generated a robust framework to preserve the openness and freedom of the Internet -- one that drives innovation, investment, free speech, and consumer choice," he added. "All options remain on the table as we continue to seek broad input on this vital issue."

An FCC spokeswoman didn't say whether the FCC's decision to call off the talks and the news reports on Verizon and Google's negotiations were related.

The FCC has been hosting net neutrality negotiations with broadband providers and other interested groups since June, after providers and dozens of U.S. lawmakers objected to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's plan to create formal rules at the agency. Net neutrality rules would prohibit broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web traffic.

Verizon said Thursday it remained committed to the negotiations hosted by the FCC, despite the news reports that it was close to a private deal with Google. Verizon and Google both denied a New York Times report saying the two companies were negotiating a deal that would allow Google to pay for faster access over Verizon's network.

That article is "mistaken," Verizon said in a statement. "It fundamentally misunderstands our purpose. Our goal is an Internet policy framework that ensures openness and accountability, and incorporates specific FCC authority, while maintaining investment and innovation. To suggest this is a business arrangement between our companies is entirely incorrect."

Several digital rights and consumer groups objected to a private deal between Verizon and Google.

"The notion that a critical question of public policy could be privately negotiated between two industry giants turns the notion of Internet neutrality on its head," Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement. "The goal of Internet neutrality is to prevent gatekeepers and ensure a level playing field. Any negotiation that begins and ends with two companies threatens to undercut that goal."

Genachowski proposed that the FCC craft formal net neutrality rules in late 2009. In May, he called on the FCC to reclassify broadband as a regulated, common-carrier service after an appeals court ruled that the agency didn't have the authority to enforce informal net neutrality rules in a case involving Comcast slowing peer-to-peer traffic.

But several U.S. lawmakers have questioned whether the FCC should reclassify broadband, suggesting instead that Congress take up net neutrality.

Gigi Sohn, president of digital rights group Public Knowledge, called on the FCC to move forward with net neutrality rules following the collapse of negotiations.

"The path before the Federal Communications Commission is now perfectly clear," she said in a statement. "It must act to ensure that consumers are protected, that everyone can have access to broadband and that the commission has the authority to ensure and open and non-discriminatory Internet."

Public Knowledge and other digital rights groups had raised concerns about the FCC negotiations, saying the talks left out several groups interested in net neutrality.

The negotiations were "largely restricted to the biggest industry players," she said. "The FCC now can use the comments and public views submitted to it as a basis for its decisions, as the commission should have done all along."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantusG. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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