Net neutrality vote shows Washington is off the rails

Thursday, the Senate failed to stop the Federal Communications Commission from passing its network neutrality rules by a 46-52 vote. But for anyone who watched the hearings or looks at how the Senate vote split completely along partisan lines, the vote isn’t a victory but is instead a frightening reminder of how easily the folks in Washington, D.C. can throw a wrench in the gears of innovation. With their ideology trumping common sense, politicians are like a crazy man wielding a gun, and technology issues find themselves in the crossfire more often.
While people in the Valley are playing at building companies and technology, the folks in D.C. are playing at politics, and when those worlds collide, its likely technologists that will lose. I’ve covered the problems associated with the need for more spectrum and how politics is derailing efforts to make useful spectrum available, as well as holding up the creation of a sustainable policy when it comes to dealing with unexpected interference issues, like what is affecting LightSquared and the GPS industry.
Mathew has done a good job explaining why the Stop Online Piracy Act legislation is so potentially harmful, and there are scores of other ways that Congress, focused on special interest groups, political theater and divided along party lines, can rain on technologists’ parades. In the case of network neutrality, which the FCC finally drafted regulations around last December, the fight was about whether the agency could “regulate the Internet.”
The principles of networks neutrality basically assert that an ISP can’t discriminate against the packets flowing across their network. The rules, as enacted by the FCC make exceptions for mobile Internet and allow ISPs the freedom to manage their networks.
We covered the network neutrality debate, the rules themselves and some of the likely repercussions for ISPs, mobile operators and technology startups. Then Congress decided to get involved, and threatened to repeal the rules, as part of some political grandstanding. As the movement gathered momentum, President Obama had to come out and say that if the Senate did pass a resolution disapproving of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, he would veto it.
The Senate held a hearing yesterday on whether or not the FCC has the authority to create network neutrality rules, with the lead instigator being Kay Bailly Hutchinson (R-Texas). Now Hutchinson isn’t only the Senator from AT&T’s (s T) home state, but she’s also a Republican — a distinction that mattered in this vote once President Obama said he planned to veto anything that threatened network neutrality. Suddenly what was a marginally rational debate became about solidarity among the parties, and any semblance of reasonable thought was lost.
It’s nice that in this case partisanship and corporate spending on behalf of large ISPs didn’t change the rules already set in place after much public comment and debate, but it’s clear that Washington D.C. is becoming more about showmanship than making smart policy, and as it spends more and more time investigating the intersection of technology and people’s lives, Silicon Valley is in its crosshairs.