Net netutrality is a case of who you fear most: Evil telecom companies or the evil FCC? Companies are unlikely to behave without the threat of FCC action, but if the FCC acts we may wish that it hadn't.
It is a tough issue for the technology and venture capital communities, as pointed out this morning in a commentary posted on TechNewsWorld. The author, a senior fellow at the conservative Pacific Research Institute, notes that the tech leaders like only one thing less than government regulation: The big telecom companies.
(Not up to speed on the issue? Check out our net neutrality FAQ).
Self-regulation only works when the big stick of government regulation is held over an industry's head. Given the fragile state of the Obama majority, permanent change may require permanent rules.
Already, we are seeing the carriers modifying their behavior, some (Verizon) for the better and some (AT&T) fighting in a way that makes formal regulation inevitable.
Smart telecom companies should be working to cut a deal with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski that will bring meaningful, long-term protection for an "open" Internet, without weighing it down with too much government oversight.
Clearly, we need something with more teeth than the previous "five principles" the FCC used in handling Internet issues. The carriers have taken steps to assert greater control over the Internet that were only thwarted by the threat of FCC action, now underway.
Make no mistake: Telecom companies are not their customers' best friends. They are monopolies with old technology they want to protect. The recognize that an open Internet encourages huge changes--like the end of traditional telephony and cable television--that they want to slow or stop. (They may actually have a point).
Sen. John McCain's heavyhanded and misleading effort to block the FCC is bound to fail and makes actual regulation more likely, not less.
The FCC, for its part, rarely does what is best for consumers (Genachowski's attempt is a rare exception) and tends to over-lawyer all that it touches. There is a point that lies between doing nothing and doing too much that consistently eludes the Commission.
For now, Chairman Genachowski can be trusted. He comes from Silicon Valley and understands that too much regulation is at least as damaging as too little. He is trying to protect consumers from big telecom and big telecom from itself.
With the 60-day comment period now underway, the competing interests are making their positions known. Once that happens, we will have a better idea of how heavy the hand of government must be to protect the Internet from greedy telecoms.