What the Web Is Saying: Net Neutrality Rules

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Net Neutrality, a drama that has dragged on for years, lurched forward today with new rules from the Federal Communications Commission that will impose some basic protections for an open Internet, but will leave wireless with less safeguards than wired broadband. My colleague Stacey is tracking the news in Washington and its effects.

The short version of the story is this: The rules, passed with a 3-2 vote, are a compromise, and as such, aren’t going to be terribly popular with everyone. Generally, they have seemed to find begrudging support from many Internet service providers and Internet companies in the middle of the debate though many consumer advocates and conservative groups still see nothing to like in the proposed order. To top it all off, they’re built on questionable legal authority, so expect this to get decided in the courts at some point in the future. For now, here’s what the web is saying about the new rules:

President Barack Obama claimed victory in the 3-2 vote, saying it was an important compromise that will maintain the Internet as an open platform for speech and expression.

“Today’s decision will help preserve the free and open nature of the Internet while encouraging innovation, protecting consumer choice, and defending free speech….This decision is an important component of our overall strategy to advance American innovation, economic growth, and job creation,” Obama said in a statement.

The Open Internet Coalition (OIC), which includes Google, Skype and other Internet companies, said the order addresses some important issues in protecting an open Internet and providing some stable rules for the Internet ecosystem. But Markham Erickson, executive director of the OIC, said the order still doesn’t go far enough in protecting the wireless Internet, which has great potential for consumers, innovators and the economy.

“The Commission should move to apply the same rules of the road to the entire Internet moving forward,” Erickson said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the progress under this rule and work to ensure the FCC fulfills its responsibility to protect consumers’,  small businesses’ and nonprofits’ ability to fully access and enjoy the benefits of the open Internet.”

Christopher Libertelli, Skype’s senior director of government and regulatory affairs, said the Internet communications company is generally pleased with the trade-offs in the FCC’s rules.

“On balance, this decision advances the goal of keeping the Internet an open and unencumbered medium for Skype users. Specifically, we support the Commission’s decision that it will not tolerate wireless carriers who arbitrarily block Skype on mobile devices. This decision protects a consumer’s entitlement to use Skype on their mobile devices and we look forward to delivering further innovation in this area.”

Free Press, a media advocacy group, called the new rules a squandered opportunity that was heavily influenced by the Internet service providers the FCC should be regulating. Rather than protect an open Internet, the new order will enable discrimination for the first time, said Free Press Managing Director Craig Aaron.

“These rules don’t do enough to stop the phone and cable companies from dividing the Internet into fast and slow lanes, and they fail to protect wireless users from discrimination. No longer can you get to the same Internet via your mobile device as you can via your laptop. The rules pave the way for AT&T to block your access to third-party applications and to require you to use its own preferred applications.”

Mike Wendy, director of MediaFreedom, a market-oriented media organization, said the new rules were unwarranted regulation of the Internet, the result of an over-reaching agency. He said the order could undermine U.S. competitiveness if not overturned in the courts or by Congress.

“If not overturned… these new regulations will harm the roll out of Internet infrastructure and services. Moreover, they will take America backwards at a time when our economy needs every advantage it can get to provide jobs for Americans, and compete globally,” Wendy said in a blog post.

Cable and telecom providers gave begrudging support for the new rules, saying they do a decent job of balancing openness with the needs of Internet providers to innovate in the marketplace. They seemed especially relieved that the FCC avoided reclassifying Internet service providers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which would have given the FCC much more leeway in regulating them.

“…the rules as described generally appear intended to strike a workable balance between the needs of the marketplace for certainty and everyone’s desire that Internet openness be preserved,” wrote David L. Cohen, Comcast’s EVP for public policy. “Most importantly, this approach removes the cloud of Title II regulation that would unquestionably have harmed innovation and investment in the Internet and broadband infrastructure.”

AT&T’s Jim Ciccone, senior EVP – external and legislative affairs, said while AT&T preferred the position of FCC commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker, who opposed any rules, he said the FCC’s proposed order provides some certainty to the market, which is good for investment and job growth. In particular, he praised Chairman Julius Genachowski for not giving into organizations urging more extreme action by the FCC.

“Too often, well-funded ideologues have used intimidation, vilification, and fear-mongering to advance their goal that government control the Internet and other forms of communication without regard for their impact on the jobs and livelihoods of millions already challenged by a difficult economy.  The Commission’s apparent rejection of such unfeeling dogma is an added reason to be heartened by today’s FCC vote,” Ciccone wrote.

Rebecca Arbogast, managing director for investment firm Stifel Nicolaus, said much will depend on the final wording of the rules and how they are applied. While she expects a challenge by Republicans will fall short of undoing the FCC order, she said the case will likely be contested for many years to come

“…because the rules are very high-level, their meaning and impact will be determined by how the facts on the ground develop over the next few years, and thus we expect the battle will continue in the marketplace and through FCC case-by-case enforcement, as well as in Congress and the courts,” she wrote in a research note.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user legoguy

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