FCC Chief Unveils Plan to Save Net Neutrality

New plan would classify internet as phone service, would cover transmission issues but not content

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski on Thursday formally unveiled his plan to let the FCC move forward with net neutrality and other initiatives.

As reported Wednesday on TheWrap, Genachowski is taking a middle position on the commission’s response to a recent appellate court ruling that it did not have legal authority to rule over the internet.

Genachowski is asking fellow commissioners to rule that the internet is a phone service and not just an “information service.”

However, as a concession to telephone and cable providers opposed to the reclassification, he added that the commission would regulate only transmission issues, and not content. Such a plan would include net neutrality, which is an effort to regulate discrimination in transmission.

Attempts to regulate content would apparently come later – necessitating that the commission prove to the courts that it did have legal authority, which could be a lengthy process.

In the meantime, the FCC would be unable to limit the number of commercials in children’s programming, require disclosure of product placement and limit indecency on the web as it now does for broadcast and, in some cases, cable TV.

But it would allow the commission to fulfill a “vital role” in “providing basic rules of the road” that “when necessary [would]  protect consumers and promote competition, investment and innovation,” Genachowski said in a statement.

The appellate court’s decision “created a serious problem,” Genachowski said, adding that it threatens the agency’s ability “to perform the basic oversight functions, and pursue the basic broadband-related policies, that have been long and widely thought essential and appropriate.”

Genachowski’s statement immediately brought the expected praise and brickbats.

Consumer groups and legislators who support net neutrality quickly praised the plan, though they also offered some cautions.

“With this decision, the FCC will ensure that the agency remains the ‘cop on the beat,’ protecting consumers and competition on the World Wide Web,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. He called Genachowski’s decision “smart” and “Solomonic.”

S. Derek Turner, research director for consumer group Free Press, which focuses on media consolidation issues, said Genachowski “is reversing one of the worst deregulatory mistakes of the past decade.” He called the move “a step in the right direction,” but cautioned that the agency could be prematurely ceding some regulation.

The FCC’s two Republican commissioners, telephone and cable companies were not pleased, and there were immediate signs that they would quickly mount a congressional challenge.

 “This proposal is disappointing and deeply concerns us,” said Republican commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith Baker in a joint statement. They questioned Genachowski’s claim in his statement that it was “a light-touch approach.”

“It is a stark departure from the long-established bipartisan framework for addressing broadband regulation that has led to billions in investment and untold consumer opportunities.  It also poses serious ramifications across the globe,” they said.

Comcast, which won the court case against BitTorrent that brought the ruling, said it was disappointed with Genachowski’s decision on how to proceed.

“We continue to believe that the existing classification of broadband as an information service gives the commission sufficient authority to implement both key goals of the National Broadband Plan and reasonable rules to preserve an open Internet,” Comcast VP Sena Fizmaurice said in a statement.

Verizon also expressed concern about the move and suggested it could bring legal challenges.

“Today’s FCC announcement raises obvious concerns about whether the chairman is suggesting a path that could ultimately harm consumers and inhibit the innovation and investment he wants to encourage,” said Tom Tauke, Verizon executive vice president of public affairs, policy and communications. “We believe that the chairman’s stated approach is legally unsupported.”

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), vice chair of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, said in a statement: “The steps taken by the FCC are important if we are going to protect net neutrality and restore clarity to the proposition that indeed the FCC has authority to protect consumers and preserve the basic ethos of the internet – its freedom. 

“Congress will certainly have to wade into these waters eventually, but for now Chairman Julius Genachowski and the FCC have taken the right steps to ensure net neutrality and openness prevail.”

In a statement, FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn said: “If we truly support universal access to broadband, if we are serious about transparency in broadband speeds and billing, if our aim is to strengthen our nation’s cybersecurity, and if we care about ensuring meaningful access to communications technologies by people with disabilities, then Title II authority is essential. The fact that the chairman has been able to find a way to accomplish this without unnecessary and burdensome regulations on industry means a victory for all parties."