Net Neutrality, Nausea & Political Theater at Its Worst


The five FCC commissioners traveled to the Capitol today for a House Communications and Internet Subcommittee hearing on the necessity of the network neutrality order passed by the FCC in December. The hearing was the first step in a process that attempts to repeal the FCC’s network neutrality rules and prevent the FCC from trying to implement them again.

After the hearing, I now know what’s worse than the thousands of pages of rhetoric and willful misunderstanding contained in the net neutrality comments that were submitted to the FCC while it spent more than a year setting its network neutrality rules: watching Congress express the same grandstanding and willful misunderstanding of the order for more than three hours. It’s nauseating, and less fun even than reading pitches for the latest Groupon clone.

Whether it’s Republican Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker saying that she used a Slingbox but defending AT&T (s t) blocking the device because of the amount of bandwidth it consumed, or the continued assertions by Republican congressmen that network neutrality will protect against imaginary harms without acknowledging the documented harms that network neutrality rules would have prevented, the Republicans pushed hard against the FCC’s regulations. Meanwhile, the Democrats contented themselves with pushing for a reduction in the digital divide and asserting that the FCC’s rules were an example of “light touch” regulations that won’t stifle the industry.

Here are the only three things worth noting from the hearing:

  • FCC Chairman Genachowski said the Level 3 (s lvlt) and Comcast (s cmcsa) debate over access to Comcast’s last mile subscribers is a business issue and not a net neutrality issue. For the implications of this fight, refer back to our previous coverage.
  • FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell resurrected the ghost of unlicensed white spaces and set it up as a competitive threat to existing ISPs. He then used that threat of eventual competition to argue we no longer need net neutrality rules. I tend to agree that if we had robust broadband competition, we wouldn’t need network neutrality, but according to McDowell, white spaces aren’t dead. If they aren’t dead, that’s important.
  • The FCC will keep the docket open on its effort to reclassify broadband, which would give the FCC the legal authority under existing laws regulate broadband as a transportation service (the so-called Title II authority). This is a good thing for network neutrality fans, as the existing net neutrality rules will likely be challenged in court, and keeping that docket open leaves a back door for the FCC to implement rules. However, the industry hates the idea of reclassification and will fight it tooth and nail. It also means more hearings, comments and arguments over the entire issue.

As a reporter who has spent hours in interviews and days reading filings from all players in this debate, or what FCC Chairman Genchowski called “the broadband economy,” watching this hearing made a mockery of all my efforts to understand what is a deeply complicated series of issues. At its core, this hearing was about whether the FCC has the authority to push forward with a set of net neutrality rules or if Congress should have done it.

Congress may try to enforce its right to repeal the FCC’s rules under what is known as a Congressional Review Act, but it’s unclear if that would succeed, given such a repeal requires passage in both Congressional houses and a presidential signature. President Obama has been in favor of net neutrality, although he has said less and less as the issue has become more controversial.

However, it’s beyond frustrating to see elected officials argue that Congress, which has devolved into a grandstanding and reactionary body serving the loudest constituency try to take the power of regulating ISPs away from an agency that has historically been entrusted with regulating the industry. Yes, that industry is changing, but the point of regulatory bodies is to amass a level of expertise and distance from politics that enable good regulations and policies to float their way up to the top. Whether or not the network neutrality rules are the best regulations around, they did take into consideration many legitimate technical opinions — as opposed to pandering to the whims of fashion on cable news.

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Richard Bennett

Brett Glass was a witness at the House Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet’s hearing on the FCC’s Open Internet order this week as well.

Phillip M Dampier

No wonder the tea party wants to slash government. All the money spent to illuminate the issues before us were reduced to a blizzard of talking points written on 3×5 index cards. Both sides talked past one another, their minds already made up.

It was a complete waste of time and money. Genachowski’s defense of his fatally flawed Net Neutrality regs (one court decision away from oblivion) was never going to fly in a room with Marsha Blackburn in it, who spent her five minutes railing about how the FCC dared to hold up the Comcast NBC merger.

After several hours listening to this twaddle, what makes me even more upset is how it contrasts with the ongoing hearings about usage-based billing in Canada. The difference in the caliber of the discussion and the quest for facts is absolutely stunning. Well informed Canadian MPs asking intelligent questions, tripping up simplistic arguments, and asking smart follow up questions.

That doesn’t work south of Toronto.

Poor Bell Canada sure wishes they lived in a country that can obliterate pesky challenges to their business model with big fat checks. Unfortunately, beyond a supine CRTC, Bell is having a tough time because the talking points that would be lapped up by Washington lawmakers are being dissected and debunked in Ottawa.

The embarrassing conclusion: far too often, we are left with the best government AT&T’s money can buy.


“try to take the power of regulating ISPs away from an agency that has historically been entrusted with regulating the industry”

You haven’t been listening.

” the point of regulatory bodies is to amass a level of expertise and distance from politics that enable good regulations and policies to float their way up to the top”

You live in a dreamworld.

“Whether or not the network neutrality rules are the best regulations around, they did take into consideration many legitimate technical opinions — as opposed to pandering to the whims of fashion on cable news”

Oh please


The distinction between blogger and journalist is worthy of a wholly different discussion and is largely irrelevant here because the issue seems to have been raised as a way to diminish the value of the post. Beware of attacks on the credibility of the author, subtle or otherwise, rather than real discussion of the issues. As to the authority of the FCC to issue rules or policy regarding internet service providers, the courts and/or Congress will eventually sort that out — hence the hearing referred to in the post. In the meantime, the facts are that I, and many others, do not enjoy a free and competitive market for internet service, broadband or otherwise. Until I (and others like me) do, I’m afraid that some form of regulation is needed and likely inevitable. The question is how much harm will be done in the meantime?


It would probably be more appropriate to refer to yourself as a blogger rather than reporter.

Stacey Higginbotham

Shawn, I’m not sure there’s much a line there anymore. I’m a reporter by training and profession but I work at a blog. I report out stories and call both sides on an issue to get their thoughts and insights and include those in my articles. I am careful about sourcing information I get for myself versus what I have read on other sites or heard secondhand so people know where the information comes from. I do write some straight news items and I also write opinion articles such as this one. I’m not sure what you’re inferring with your comment, and I admit that it may be an arbitrary distinction, or at least one that each person defines differently.

Richard Bennett

The more relevant distinction falls between reporting and opinion. Bloggers generally do opinion, but can do reporting as well.

This piece seems to be a mixture of reporting and opinion; as it’s not the first piece of yours I’ve read about net neutrality, I fancy that I can see where the one ends and the other begins.

It does seem a bit rushed. The main point of the hearing was to underscore the fact that the FCC doesn’t have independent power to “go around doing good” as the Third Circuit told them in the Comcast appeal. The rules hew close to the Waxman compromise and are therefore inoffensive in their own right. The problem is that the Communications Act doesn’t relegate policy-making to the FCC, only the execution of policy articulated by Congress.

I haven’t seen any journalist or blogger crack the code on why the FCC did what they did with the Open Internet order, although the motivation is pretty well understood in DC. Reading NN commentary these days is like watching an Easter Egg Hunt.


A more accurate description would be a shill for the economic interests of Silicon Valley.


Your rhetoric in this piece is worse than any political pandering that went on at that hearing. Congress is completely justified to question the FCC’s reach. The FCC has broad authority over communications and that gives too much power to the executive branch. The consequences of net neutrality on business and the public would be massive and it is an issue that should not be rushed. The courts have even seemed to side against the commission regarding their authority on this matter. As a consumer, industry participant, and taxpayer, I would rather see elected representatives deliberate and preside over a matter of this magnitude rather than appointed members of an agency.

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