Republicans at pains to turn FCC net neutrality ruling into shadowy ‘internet takeover’

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Federal Communications Commission Thursday made an historic ruling in favor of “net neutrality,” which is shorthand for protecting web users from a two-tiered fast-slow internet that would deliver different content at different speeds to people with less and more money and that would force content providers to pay internet service providers for good or bad delivery of their products to more or less households.

Net neutrality has long been a thorny issue for lawmakers, mainly because some influential (content) corporations, like Google and Facebook, are for it and some influential (provider) corporations, like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are against it. For a Congress where money shouts and the public whispers, it has been confusing. But at least for Republicans, once Pres. Obama came out for net neutrality, the matter was settled. As has become clear over the past 24 hours, Republicans like new Colorado U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, still marinating in the rhetoric of Obamacare, decided that the FCC ruling amounts to a secretive Obama “internet takeover” bound to decrease liberty, hobble business and diminish the role of the United States as leader among nations. Like most Republican positions, this one was expressed in near-caricature form by Colorado 5th District Congressman Doug Lamborn.

“The FCC, led by three Democrat bureaucrats hand-picked by President Obama, approved a secret plan to fundamentally undermine a free and open Internet,” the Colorado Springs Republican wrote to constituents. “This decision ushers in a new era of government micromanagement that will discourage private investment in new networks and stifle the innovation that has allowed the Internet to flourish. With the recent failures and mismanagement of Obamacare, it is astounding that anyone would think that heavy handed regulation by government bureaucrats can manage the Internet. This is a solution in search of a problem. I look forward to serious Congressional pushback against this secretive effort which threatens America’s continued leadership in the global Internet economy.”

Lamborn is sixty years old. He received a bachelors degree in journalism and a law degree from the University of Kansas in the age of the typewriter and then practiced real estate law for a decade until in 1994, when he was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives. He has served as a lawmaker at the state and federal level ever since.

The man behind Thursday’s FCC ruling is Tom Wheeler, the “Democrat bureaucrat” chairman of the commission. Wheeler is 68 years old. In the mid-seventies, he began establishing himself as a player in the communications technology industry. He eventually became head of the trade groups National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. He also headed internet startups and worked at a communication technology investment firm. He was an internet industry entrepreneur.

The Tom Wheeler who Republicans like Lamborn are now assailing for doing the bidding of the president is the same Tom Wheeler previously derided by supporters of net neutrality who feared he would be doing the bidding of the telecommunications industry. In other words, Tom Wheeler seems to be his own man. He is also someone deeply familiar with the issue of net neutrality and how a “free and open internet” might be destroyed, private investment in new networks discouraged and internet business and culture as they so far have unfolded quashed.

In a piece published at Wired Magazine and at sites across the web earlier this month, Wheeler detailed some of the professional experience that shaped his thinking on the issue of net neutrality.

[blockquote]I personally learned the importance of open networks the hard way. In the mid-1980s I was president of a startup, NABU: The Home Computer Network. My company was using new technology to deliver high-speed data to home computers over cable television lines. Across town Steve Case was starting what became AOL. NABU was delivering service at the then-blazing speed of 1.5 megabits per second—hundreds of times faster than Case’s company. “We used to worry about you a lot,” Case told me years later.

But NABU went broke while AOL became very successful. Why that is highlights the fundamental problem with allowing networks to act as gatekeepers.

While delivering better service, NABU had to depend on cable television operators granting access to their systems. Steve Case was not only a brilliant entrepreneur, but he also had access to an unlimited number of customers nationwide who only had to attach a modem to their phone line to receive his service. The phone network was open whereas the cable networks were closed. End of story.[/blockquote]

In fact, for months, Wheeler has made no secret of which way he intended to steer the commission. He was looking to find the best way to protect the internet from broadband providers who have been edging toward blocking or slowing content. The 317-page preview of the rule is posted at the FCC website for all the world to read. Members of Congress may feel they have been kept in the dark, but investors apparently do not feel that way. When Wheeler announced his plans to write strong net-neutrality rules at the beginning of the month, broadband stocks ticked up and stayed high. And, as Tim Wu writes at the New Yorker, “with full knowledge that the rules were coming, bidders in late January spent a record $44.9 billion on broadcast spectrum — exactly the kind of infrastructure investment that [net neutrality] laws would supposedly deter.”

In his statement on the ruling Thursday, Wheeler directly addressed critics like Lamborn: “This proposal has been described by one opponent as a ‘secret plan to regulate the internet.’ Nonsense! This is no more a plan to regulate the internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concept: Openness, expression, and an absence of gatekeepers telling people what they can do, where they can go and what they can think.”

Wheeler went on at length, speaking simply and with confidence to explain his decision, surely knowing that members of Congress would be plugging their ears:

[blockquote]The action that we take today is about the protection of internet openness.

Now let’s make no mistake about it, broadband access providers have the technical ability and the economic incentive to impose restrictions on the internet. As the D.C. circuit said in its decision remanding this matter to us, “broadband providers represent a threat to internet openness and could act in ways that would ultimately inhibit the speed and extent of future broadband deployment.”

Today, a majority of this commission establishes that that will not come to pass. Today is a red letter day for internet freedom… But, importantly, today is also a day that gives network operators what they require if they’re to continue to expand broadband service and competition.

The rules for a fair and open internet are not old style utility regulation but a 21st-century set of rules for a 21st-century service. Rate regulation, tarriffing and forced unbundling have been superseded by a modernized regulatory approach that has already been demonstrated to work in encouraging investment in wireless voice networks. It is important for consumers as for companies that nothing in today’s order alters the economic model for continued network expansion. The ISP’s revenue stream will be the same tomorrow as it was yesterday.

Before today, that revenue enabled companies to build ever faster networks. Nothing in what we do today changes that equation for consumer revenues to ISPs for tomorrow. And I believe that’s why Sprint, T-Mobile, Frontier Communications and Google Fiber along with hundreds of smaller phone-company ISPs are comfortable with the commission’s modern regulatory approach…

This is the FCC using all the tools in our tool box to protect innovators and consumers — to ban paid prioritization, the so-called fast lane, they will not divide the internet into haves and have-nots; to ban blocking, consumers will get what they paid for — unfettered access to any lawful content on the internet — and to ban throttling, because degrading access to legal content and services can have the same effect as blocking, and it will not be permitted to exist. These are the enforceable bright-line rules. They will allow consumers to go wherever they want, when they want. They will also protect the rights of the innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission. [/blockquote]

Wheeler is no bureaucratic dupe and there is no government takeover of the internet.

[ Flickr photo by Joseph Gruber.]