FCC Vote Shows Net Neutrality Strains
Title II is a go. Now the question is how it will actually work.
In front of a packed house (which included Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) co-founder Steve Wozniak), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted today along party lines to approve new network neutrality rules that will allow it to regulate the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act. But, showing the strains over net neutrality policy, the Commission also stated that it is acting with forbearance regarding several key items under Title II. Most notably, the FCC said it will not act to impose rate regulation, tariffs, unbundling or other pricing restrictions on Internet service providers. (See FCC Adopts Title II Rules .)
Proponents of net neutrality have long argued that broadband has become an essential service, and that the US needs to do a better job of ensuring fair and equal access to all. Opponents, on the other hand, believe the free market has already created a robust Internet, and that regulations will slow down innovation. At today's FCC event, the five commissioners stated their positions along similar lines, with the Democratic commissioners lining up squarely behind net neutrality advocates in voting for the new rules and the Republican Commissioners strongly dissenting from the other side.
Speaking for the Democratic majority, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the action is an "irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one -- whether government or corporate -- should control free and open access to the Internet." Generating open applause, he also talked about "the importance of an unfettered network and the role it plays at the core of free expression and Democratic principles."
Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly were equally adamant, however, that government regulation is absolutely the wrong way to maintain a free and open Internet. They also both expressed fears that while the FCC is not seeking to regulate rates today, it has opened the door to doing so in the future. Pai referred to the FCC's actions as "fig leaf forbearance," while O'Reilly called it "faux-bearance" and said the FCC has instituted "back-door rate-setting authority."
In another prime area of contention, the new rules have given the FCC the authority to examine network interconnection agreements to determine if they are "just and reasonable," and to "take appropriate enforcement action" if necessary. At a press conference after the official meeting, Wheeler explained that the agency "took real pains" not to specify what it might consider just and reasonable at this time, or how it might enforce this particular new authority. Instead, he said, the FCC will use the new rules to "create a construct on which to build a record" of behavior that it can then analyze for any future action.
In a moment of heartfelt expression, a choked-up Wheeler also said at the press conference that while he has been in public policy for a long time, "This is the proudest day of my public policy life."
Wheeler wasn't the only one who described today's vote as a historic one. In an interview, Wozniak noted that he's only flown in to watch an FCC vote twice in his life. The first time was in 2010 for an earlier vote on weaker net neutrality rules, which were eventually overturned by the federal courts. The second time was today.
"This is a victory for the people, the consumers," said Wozniak, expressing a view widely embraced by Silicon Valley supporters of net neutrality. "Once in a while we get a win."
— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading