Dems, Industry Back Away from Net Neutrality

Published March 18, 2010

The resignation of a key figure in the Obama administration’s technology policy team may signal the White House is backing away from its previous strong stance that the Federal Communications Commission should enforce strict net neutrality regulations. Though the administration and FCC are still publicly committed to the policy, the resignation came in the wake of criticisms from Democrats in both Congress and the White House questioning the policy.

Susan Crawford, a strong supporter of net neutrality and President Obama’s Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, resigned her post in December. Sources told the technology press that White House economic adviser Larry Summers wanted Crawford out because of concerns about her high-profile presence reflecting a radical net neutrality stance by the White House.

Red Flags Raised
Crawford announced her resignation a few weeks after 72 House Democrats wrote a letter to the president raising concerns about Obama’s desire to have the FCC enforce net neutrality principles on the Internet from Washington.

In addition, multiple groups with strong connections to Democrats and progressives, including minority and women’s organizations, have begun to raise flags regarding the possible impact of net neutrality rules.

Despite those developments, Obama reiterated his commitment to net neutrality in a February 2 interview on YouTube.

‘Take Things Slow’
Steve Titch, telecom policy analyst for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, said all signs suggest the Obama administration “doesn’t want to push net neutrality aggressively.

“A lot of this [reluctance] comes out of the recent resignation under pressure by Susan Crawford,” Titch added. “Her published net neutrality views are really liberal. Some of the comments [opposing Crawford’s stance] came back from people who were sympathetic to net neutrality. Most are saying to take things slow.”

‘Landslide’ of Opposition
Bartlett D. Cleland, director of the Center for Technology Freedom at the Institute for Policy Innovation in Lewisville, Texas, likens the situation with net neutrality to the recent special election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate in largely Democratic Massachusetts.

In both the Senate and the FCC, the Democrats had the votes to push things through, but people are getting disgusted with “the way things are done,” Cleland said.

“The groups most affected by the proposed FCC regulations—consumers and companies—are seemingly being ignored,” Cleland said. “As has been reported by the Internet Freedom Coalition, more than 32,000 citizens filed comments opposing proposed network neutrality regulations.

“On the other hand, only 13,000 filed comments supporting giving FCC unprecedented regulatory control of the Internet,” he added. “Seventy-one percent to 29 percent on a very specific issue—if this were an election that would be a landslide.”

Reaching Common Ground
Cleland says companies that previously took very different positions in this debate are reaching common ground. At IPI’s Communications Summit in November, Paul Misener, online retail giant Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, made it clear he was concerned about arbitrary prioritization that harms other users’ online experience, but he agreed network operators should be able to manage their networks to provide the best product for all consumers and should be free to try new business models.

More recently, Google and Verizon filed FCC comments supporting net neutrality rules enforced by government, arguing a bureaucratic referee could ensure workable rules for all sectors of the industry. Similarly, AT&T and Comcast have both made clear they intend to address any real concerns while preserving their ability to serve their customers most effectively.

Trumping Ideology
The industry, Cleland says, increasingly agrees the practical need for network operation and management trump ideological agendas.

“And of course the best proof of all is the continuation of innovation in the communications marketplace driven by consumer demand and creative offerings, and not by government regulation or prescription,” Cleland said.

Democrats’ Opposition Growing
Net neutrality would make it difficult or impossible for companies to manage applications as they cross the network, Titch says. He notes the letter from House Democrats warning net neutrality regulations enforced from Washington would “have a negative economic effect on smaller businesses involved with the Internet.”

Another problem with net neutrality is that its biggest negative impact would be in the wireless arena, according to Titch, and the wireless industry is the one that most needs the ability to manage traffic across the network.

“The iPhone and other popular consumer devices and applications would be negatively impacted if the FCC were to go ahead with an aggressive net neutrality plan,” he said.

Spring Vote Expected
Titch says he thinks FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski likely has the votes to move ahead with his plans to impose strict net neutrality rules on the tech industry, and that he may do so regardless of the recent shift of mood. The FCC is expected to vote on the matter by late spring.

But if a Washington-imposed net neutrality regime comes to pass, that may not be the end of it, Titch suggests.

“If the FCC does add some net neutrality rules, even though the FCC’s jurisdiction in this matter is questioned by many, the only resolution would be through the courts,” he said.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.