Two FCC Commissioners and one US Senator slammed the Google-Verizon joint policy agreement and strongly endorsed the principle of net neutrality last night at a hearing before hundreds of citizens in Minneapolis, giving the Chairman of the federal agency Julius Genachowski all of the support he would need to regulate broadband Internet, if he so chose.
Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn both endorsed the reclassification of broadband as a communications service, under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Copps said simply, “It’s calling an apple an apple.” If Genachowski agreed, he would thus have enough votes to pass the change in policy. Genachowski and the FCC released a plan in May to reclassify, but has yet to move on it, taking meetings with industry stakeholders and generally foot-dragging in an effort to reach consensus.
In the interim, Internet giant Google and telecom giant Verizon announced a joint policy agreement that made a distinction between wireline and wireless Internet, and also allowed for undefined “managed services” to discriminate between online content. Both Copps and Clyburn sharply criticized the statement. The deal “would eliminate any openness provisions over wireless, which is where all Internet applications are going,” said Copps, the longtime Commissioner. Clyburn, the daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, agreed. “Any proposal that treats wire-line and wireless Internet differently would be impossible for me to support,” she said, citing the increasing tendency for minority Web users to access the Internet on phones or wireless devices.
Sen. Al Franken, who has led on the issue of net neutrality recently, concurred. Speaking of the Google-Verizon deal, he said, “We can’t let companies write the rules that we the people are supposed to follow. Because if that happens those rules will be written only to protect corporations.” As Copps put it, “Dealmaking between big Internet players is not policymaking for the common good.”
Copps and Clyburn were also in agreement on the crucial importance of net neutrality for all Internet products. While stressing that the issue “is not about regulating the content on the Internet,” a clear response to tea party activists and conservatives who have criticized net neutrality in that fashion, Clyburn called an open Internet “the great equalizer” and preferred a situation where “consumers and not corporations managing their own experience on Internet.” Copps cited the great importance of citizen action and the Web’s role as a tool in facilitating that, but said that “truth only tells its story when it can be heard.”
Adding some levity to the proceedings, Franken alluded to the controversy around the Park51 Islamic cultural center project near Ground Zero. “Net neutrality is the First Amendment fight of the 21st century, except for religious freedom, which before last week I thought was settled.” Franken also warned of the imminent merger between Comcast and NBC Universal, and the dangers of having a company control the content and the pipe through which that content can be viewed.
In an editorial yesterday, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) added his voice to the chorus of criticism over the Google-Verizon deal, describing it as “an effort to kill off the open Internet.” Despite Grayson’s earlier preference for Congress to deal with the matter, he says here “It’s time for the FCC to step up. It’s time for Congress to step up. It’s time for all of us to step up” in support of net neutrality, suggesting there would be plenty of back-up for reclassification if the FCC chose that route.
While the opinions of Copps and Clyburn are nothing new – just yesterday they posted an editorial with similar views in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune – this public display of support for net neutrality makes perfectly clear that two votes exist on the FCC for strong regulatory authority over broadband in all its forms. Only three votes would be needed for passage, so really, it’s all up to Chairman Genachowski.