FCC official says Google, Facebook had little say on net neutrality

The FCC’s landmark decision on net neutrality has produced all sorts of speculation about the degree to which well-known tech giants shaped the outcome.

Gawker, for instance, claimed that Americans can thank a benevolent Facebook-Google cabal for the open internet rules that were passed last Thursday. The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, has suggested instead that Google has been conspiring behind the scenes to weaken the rules. So what’s the real story?

“The fact of the matter is that Google and Facebook sat this one out … I don’t what this person is smoking” said FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn in reference to the Gawker story.

Sohn was speaking Tuesday at a Freedom to Connect event in New York City, where journalist Sam Gustin of Vice asked her about the ruling and what comes next. The 3-2 ruling, which reclassified ISP’s as common carriers, came as a surprise to many given that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was once skeptical to the measure and because of fierce opposition from the telecom industry.

According to Sohn, Wheeler’s ultimate decision did not come about as a result of pressure from corporations or the White House. Instead, she said Wheeler (who is not a lawyer) came to reassess the situation after learning about various legal nuances, and in response to a series of external developments, including a time last spring when his Netflix service started sputtering.

Sohn did, however, credit the White House and members of Capitol Hill for providing “covering fire” as it became clear that Wheeler’s office intended to go forward with reclassification. She added that the FCC’s final decision did not come about as a result of any single factor (including comedian John Oliver), but rather from broad public support.

As for corporate influence, Sohn appeared on Tuesday to chastise the tech industry for not lending more public support to net neutrality, though she did credit Google for providing a small boost late in the process.

“Google to its credit said Title II [the reclassification law] wouldn’t hurt its investment in Fiber… Facebook has said nothing,” Sohn said.

Ultimately, the guessing game over the tech industry’s role in the net neutrality debate may remain just that — a guess. While it seems probable that an 11th hour call by Google persuaded Wheeler to back away from a two-step reclassification for interconnection (the so-called “middle-mile” where ISP’s and websites connect), for now there’s little to support any grander theories.

In the meantime, there will be plenty more for internet policy types to chew on while they wait for the official copy of the final decision to emerge in the next week or two.

Sohn predicted that “people will try to grind the FCC to a standstill” through budget threats and partisan hearings in the coming months. She added, though, that the issue may become less partisan since many groups who ordinarily support Republicans, who are the main antagonists of the new rules, are in favor of net neutrality.

Finally, as Sohn spoke, her boss Chairman Wheeler was wrapping up an appearance at the World Mobile Conference in Barcelona, where he told the audience that phone carriers’ massive recent spectrum purchases belied the idea that the new rules would dissuade companies from investing in the internet.

Net Neutrality day is here: a guide to today’s vote

What is the right way to run the internet? After months of pitched debate over so-called net neutrality, the FCC will finally vote on a proposal that will prevent broadband providers from slowing down or speeding up certain websites.

While there’s little doubt about the outcome of the vote, Thursday’s FCC hearing could still bring some surprises. Here’s an overview of how the process will unfold, key issues to watch, and what will happen next.

When is the vote taking place?

The hearing begins at 10:30am ET at the FCC in Washington, where the five Commissioners will vote on two items. The net neutrality proposal is the second item (the first is about municipal broadband – update: which has passed 3-2), and a vote is expected to occur in the early afternoon.

What are they voting on?

The crux of the proposal is new regulations that will replace the net neutrality rules that a court struck down in early 2014. The new rules themselves (contrary to recent rhetoric) are rumored to be 8 pages long and, under FCC convention, are an appendix to a larger document that contains the Commissioners’ positions.

The FCC staff will summarize the key parts of the new rules, but the document itself is not likely to be available to the public for several weeks. This is due to agency protocol, which gives the Commissioners time to add final comments (though the substance of the rules will not change between now and when they appear).

How exactly does the vote take place, and what will be the outcome?

After the staff summaries, each of the five Commissioner will offer their comments in order of seniority. Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai, who has been an outspoken critic, is expected to speak for an hour so this could take some time. They will then take a vote, and hold a press conference.

The outcome will be a 3-2 vote on partisan lines, with the two Democratic Commissioners siding with Chairman Tom Wheeler. (Update: that’s exactly what happened)

What are the key things to watch?

While the outcome of the vote is a sure thing, some key details of the proposal are still unknown. The most high profile of these concerns what the FCC will do about so-called interconnection, and what the rules will do to prevent ISPs from forcing sites like Netflix to pay a toll in return for not having their streams degraded.

There is also the issue of “zero rating,” which is when phone and companies exclude certain apps or services (such as music) from a customer’s monthly data cap. While this violates the general principle of net neutrality, Chairman Wheeler has yet to explain how strictly the new rules will prevent this. (Read my colleague Stacey Higginbottam’s excellent overview of potential loopholes here).

Finally, since much of the recent net neutrality debate has been about theater, it will be worth watching to see how far Commissioner Pai (who has been waging a nasty political and social media campaign against Wheeler) will go to stir the pot during the hearing.

So will the new net neutrality rules go into effect right away?

No. According to Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, the rules only go into effect 30 days after they appear in the Federal Register, which could take a few weeks.

Will there be lawsuits?

Yes, buckets of them. Expect big telecom companies like Verizon or AT&T to sue in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, it’s possible that activist groups on both the right and the left may bring suits of their own.

What will be the effect of the lawsuits?

Feld says, in the event of multiple lawsuits, the first order of business will be for various appeals courts to decide which of them will take the case. After that, the telecom companies are likely to receive a brief stay of the rules until they can file their first round of arguments. At that point, the stay will likely be lifted while the court hears the case.

The court cases are likely to kick off in March or April, and a ruling on whether the new FCC plan is legal will probably come in late 2015 or early 2016. In the meantime, the net neutrality rules will be in effect.

I just can’t get enough of this stuff! Where can I learn more?

Gigaom will have updates on the days proceedings through Thursday. The FCC will have a live stream here (if the internet holds up!).

I’ll be tweeting about it here. Other Twitter accounts to watch are those of Gigi Sohn (FCC lawyer), Commissioner Pai, Public Knowledge’s Feld and Professor Tim Wu (who coined “net neutrality” in the first place).

For political flavor: The New York Times has opined on the FCC’s “wise new rules” here while the Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, hates everything about the FCC (paywall).

This story was corrected at 10:05am to note the court decision was in 2014, not 2013.

New FCC chair shakes things up with first appointment

Gigi Sohn’s appointment is a very loud message of some sort from new FCC chair Tom Wheeler to the media and telecom bar on K Street, and their water-carriers on Capitol Hill, but what exactly that message says is not yet clear.

Consumer advocate Gigi Sohn joins Tom Wheeler’s new FCC

If you were looking for a signal showing how cozy new Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler would be with the cable and telecom industries he used to lobby for, then Wheeler just broadcast a big one. He’s hired Public Knowledge President, CEO and founder Gigi Sohn as special counsel for external affairs on his staff. For 12 years Sohn has railed against the communications industries’ more anti-consumer actions, and while Sohn’s appointment doesn’t guarantee Wheeler will take a hard line against his former employers, it does shows he will listen to opposing perspectives as he kicks off what is sure to be a controversial tenure.