FCC Takes Net Neutrality to Court of Public Opinion (Again)

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The FCC has opened the next chapter in the debate over net neutrality with a new Notice of Inquiry seeking public comments and feedback on specific aspects of the proposed rules. Net neutrality advocates, however, are becoming increasingly frustrated with the FCC dragging its feet rather than implementing change.

The new FCC inquiry is in pursuit of specific feedback to clarify opinion on a couple of "under-developed issues" that came up during the negotiations with the ISPs and broadband industry, and as a result of the controversial Google-Verizon proposal. Specifically, the FCC wants input to get consensus on the concept of "specialized services" and application of net neutrality to wireless broadband service.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski issued a statement clarifying the ongoing debate. "We have moved from a world of four disputed and unenforceable open Internet principles--about blocking by broadband providers of lawful online content, applications, and services--toward the acceptance of six enforceable rules: the original four principles plus the concepts of nondiscrimination and transparency. These would prevent broadband providers from wrongly playing favorites with lawful Internet speech or businesses, and would empower consumers and entrepreneurs with information about broadband choices and networks."

Regarding the new inquiry, Genachowski explained "Recent events have highlighted questions on how open Internet rules should apply to ‘specialized' services and to mobile broadband -- what framework will guarantee Internet freedom and openness, and maximize private investment and innovation. As we've seen, the issues are complex, and the details matter. Even a proposal for enforceable rules can be flawed in its specifics and risk undermining the fundamental goal of preserving the open Internet."

Proponents of net neutrality generally support the initiative of the FCC, but some are annoyed that the FCC appears to be following Google and Verizon down a rabbit hole and allowing the debate to get sidetracked on pointless and trivial details that are simply distractions from making real progress.

Matt Wood, Associate Director of Media Access Project, issued a statement chastising the FCC for repeatedly seeking input rather than making decisions. "Recent events prove that giant companies left to regulate themselves will craft rules full of loopholes and exceptions that benefit their own interest, not the public interest. The Commission asks the same questions time and time again about wireless broadband services and specialized services, instead of providing basic answers on the basis of the robust record it already has compiled."

Wood added "The record demonstrates already that the same framework and openness principles should apply to all broadband access services, even if the rules differ on the basis of legitimate technological differences. The record also shows that the Commission must retain authority over specialized services."

It is reasonable for the FCC to seek public opinion before implementing changes, but it seems like a direct conflict of interest to actively engage the very ISPs and wireless broadband providers that are affected by the proposed net neutrality framework.

The FCC needs to have the courage of its convictions on the net neutrality issue, and not cower to political or industry pressure. It was chartered by Congress with a specific mission, and it needs to fulfill that mission without seeking permission from or apologizing to the organizations it is tasked with overseeing.

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