Lessig Lectures the FCC on the Need for Neutrality

Now we know why none of the major carriers showed up for Thursday’s open FCC meeting at Stanford University: Who wants to take on Larry Lessig, the lion of Net Neutrality, in his own den?

Class was in session when Stanford law prof Lessig delivered a powerful lecture on the need for neutral networks, telling the assembled FCC chairman and commissioners to their faces that they were part of a 10-year-long failure by the agency to “make a clear statement of policy” about how infractions against the open, end-to-end connectivity of the Internet would be policed or enforced.

Lessig’s key points — which included the assertion that the historic openness of the Internet has been the key to its economic boom — are important to record, since they are very likely to become key talking points for Net Neutrality proponents as the battle over potential neutrality regulation heats up during the current congressional session. But the lack of a viable opponent in the arena made for a somewhat lukewarm event, with more than half the auditorium’s reported 716 seats going empty. Those who were present cheered mightily for Lessig, while only issuing soft “boos” for Republican FCC commissioners Robert McDowell and Deborah Tate, whose brief remarks basically indicated their opposition to any Net Neutrality regulations.

Unlike the other assembled panelists, who had just a few minutes to present their specific-interest cases, Lessig was given all the time he needed to make a strong case for the need for clear network neutrality policies, either from the FCC or Congress. Two of his stronger points, which you can expect to see repeated, were one, that Net Neutrality principles have been the historic base of the Internet, and have been responsible for its unbridled competition and growth. And two, that providers should be governed by clear rules that make it more expensive for them to restrict network access than to provide broadband that doesn’t differentiate or prioritize different traffic types.

The FCC, Lessig said, should pass rules that make it more profitable for service providers to behave than to misbehave. “You have to make it so playing the games is not a good business model for them,” Lessig said. “If we really didn’t have a reason to worry that they were playing games [with network management], then what they did inside their networks would be of less concern.”

Though invited by FCC chairman Kevin Martin, all the major Internet service providers — AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, among others — declined to participate in Thursday’s open meeting. Comcast, which waded into a debacle on several levels at the last such open meeting at Harvard, was slammed by several panelists Thursday, including by Robb Topolski, who is credited as being one of the first to detect Comcast’s disputed P2P blocking activities.

Comcast’s activities, Topolski said, “are non-standard, and not accepted by the industry.” And Jon Peha, a computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon, disputed Comcast’s claims that it wasn’t “blocking” traffic, part of an seemingly unsolved question that Lessig said was at the heart of the problem.

“The most outrageous thing is that [the FCC] can’t get the facts straight,” Lessig said with regards to the Comcast controversy, expressing wonderment that a government body like the FCC was still somewhat in the dark about what Comcast was or wasn’t doing. “The least we should be able to do is get the truth about what is happening,” Lessig said.

Watch the entire session on video.

Paul Kapustka, former managing editor for GigaOM, now has his own blog at Sidecut Reports.