FCC Pushes Through Net Neutrality–And Draws Fire From Right And Left

In case anyone was still in doubt just how much Republicans dislike FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s Net Neutrality plans, this morning’s hearing made it crystal clear. “I really, really, really dissent,” said Commissioner *Meredith* Baker. “The FCC has provocatively charted a collision course with the legislative branch,” said Commissioner Robert McDowell. Those two commissioners are being joined by colleagues in Congress, where Republicans have already attached an amendment to a spending bill that would block the FCC from enforcing the rules it voted to pass this morning. But some heavy criticism also came from longtime supporters of net neutrality.

And while Genachowski pushed through the proposal on a 3-2 vote, even his supporters didn’t have a lot of praise for the proposal. Democratic Michael Copps, for one, said he had great reservations about Genachowski’s compromise package, and complained that it didn’t go far enough in protecting consumers from potential abuses.

In addition to a possible challenge from Congress, a court challenge is likely, since Comcast’s appeals court win against the FCC earlier this year called the agency’s power to regulate internet issues into question.

Overall, the meeting showed wide ideological differences on this issue between the two parties. The two Democrats on the commission felt the proposal didn’t go far enough to protect consumers, and suggested that allowing “reasonable network management” and pay-for-priority internet schemes will make it easy for big cable and phone companies to skew internet service in ways that fatten their profit margins while hurting consumers. Some consumer groups, like Public Knowledge, also have taken that position. For their part, the two Republicans on the commission see the regulations being passed as an egregious example of government overreach-a type of overreach that’s already been struck down by courts once, and should be again.

Here’s a quick rundown of what each commissioner had to say.

Robert McDowell (Republican): The FCC has gone off the rails, becoming a “regulatory vigilante” that has “provocatively charted a collision course with the legislative branch.” Nothing is broken that needs fixing, he said. “No one needs permission to navigate the web freely. To suggest otherwise is nothing more than fear mongering.” The cases of network interference that net neutrality advocates complain about were all resolved-in favor of consumers-under current law, McDowell noted. He also said that the FCC is overstepping its legal authority, and that allowing “reasonable” network management will lead to a flurry of litigation over what “reasonable” means. McDowell complained that the process leading up to today’s vote was flawed and rushed, saying that thousands of pages of documents had been dumped into the public record just two days before the public comment period ended. “Not only is today the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, but it is one of the darkest days in recent FCC history,” said McDowell.

Meredith (NYSE: MDP) Baker (Republican): The majority isn’t paying attention to the market in its rush to regulate, Baker argued. “They are unable to identify a single ongoing practice that they find problematic… Why do we intervene in the one sector of the economy that is working so well to create high-paying jobs, and untold opportunities?” The only reason to pass these rules is to deliver on President Obama’s campaign promises, said Baker. Like McDowell, Baker also strenuously objected to how Genachowski had overseen the process leading up to the vote, noting that her staff got the final version of the proposal at 11:30 P.M. last night.

Michael Copps (Democrat): Net neutrality rules are needed to make sure that “entrenched interest groups” didn’t control the internet’s “choke points.” Copps took a historical view, noting that AT&T (NYSE: T) was able to block competition and innovation on its telephone network-with FCC help-for many years. Back then, “bigger was better, and uniformity and stability were thought to be worth the lost opportunities.” Passing net neutrality rules is a good first step to getting the FCC back on track to protecting consumers, Copps said. But Copps objects to Genachowski’s decision to allow broadband providers to charge extra for “priority” service. “Those with deep pockets might consign the rest of us to a slower internet,” Copps said.

Mignon Clyburn (Democrat): Like Copps, Clyburn supported the proposal, but with reservations. Like Copps, she would have prohibited “paid priority” arrangements. And Clyburn said that all of the same rules that affect fixed broadband should apply directly to mobile, she said. (Genachowski has allowed mobile broadband providers to block some applications that may affect the network performance negatively-but they can’t block video and telephony services, like Skype.)

Chairman Julius Genachowski (Democrat): Genachowski spoke last, beginning his talk by quoting the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, who recently wrote that “The Web as we know it is being threatened.” He portrayed the net neutrality proposal as following a middle-ground, between “those who say government should do nothing at all on an open Internet,” and critics on the other end of the spectrum “who would adopt extensive, detailed and rigid regulations.”