Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

The FCC Votes, a New Internet Dawns, Like It or Not

There is only one point of consensus that has emerged from today’s imminent 3-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission on network neutrality rules proposed by Chairman Julius Genachowski: All concerned are dissatisfied with the result.

Even those who are voting in favor are doing so holding their noses. Of the five voting members of the commission, only one, Democrat Michael Copps, had been considered remotely likely to vote with the two Republicans who had pledged to vote against it. When he announced he would vote in favor yesterday he said he was doing so with reservations.

Republicans, both on the commission and in Congress, sense an opportunity, the size of which you can discern by the size of the headlines topping the Drudge Report during the last few days. Genachowski is being portrayed in 80-point type as the villain “Julius Seizure” out to ruin the freewheeling Internet by shackling it with a list of bureaucratic rules and regulations. The irony is that the current proposal on the table is a dramatic step back from a far more ominous one: Immediately after losing a court case brought by the cable company Comcast over the extent of its legal authority to regulate the Internet, Genachowski considered reclassifying the Internet under the FCC’s Title II authority, which governs regulation of the phone system. This was an extreme response, thankfully abandoned, that would have certainly warranted the nickname. The current proposal is by no stretch of argument so extreme that it amounts to a seizure.

But rules they are, and no one likes new rules where none existed before, least of all multibillion dollar corporations like Comcast and Verizon. Having established in the courts that they have the right to control the use of certain applications that impact the performance of their network–or, more precisely, the fact that the FCC has no legal authority to tell them not to exercise such control–they’re now going to be required to disclose how and why they exercise such controls.

The rules allow for “reasonable network management” by service providers, which is a squishy phrase. Internet companies like Amazon and Skype, which aren’t service providers themselves, argue that the new rules are weak and don’t protect them from service providers that may “reasonably manage” their products and services out of existence. Get your stopwatches ready, because there will almost certainly be several lawsuits over what constitutes “reasonable network management.”

The scenario is easy to imagine: Embittered broadband customers band together in a class-action lawsuit complaining that their provider refuses to allow them to experience the latest video streaming or video chat application. They argue that the provider favors another inferior application that it happens to own. The provider argues that it’s only engaging in “reasonable network management” allowed under FCC rules, leaving judges to tease out what that means. Lawyers are probably already shining up their Ferragamos as they polish their legal briefs.

These cases are already appearing. Comcast and Level 3 Communications are sparring over the terms under which Comcast conveys to its customers video streaming traffic sent by Level 3 associated with its relationship with Netflix. Level 3 has turned to the FCC and the U.S. Department of Justice at a delicate time for Comcast: It wants federal approval for its takeover of NBC Universal, and wants it now.

The FCC’s new rules, rightly or wrongly, make Comcast and companies like it more vulnerable to similar threats by regulators in response to actions taken in their own reasonable self-interest. Until today, this sort of dispute between companies would normally be worked out by negotiators in private, not regulators on the public dime. No matter whose side you tend to favor, the prospect of government gumming up the work with endless busywork isn’t a happy side effect.

The rules themselves may also be challenged. There’s still a huge question–as FCC commissioners Meredith Atwell Baker and Robert McDowell have both argued in recent newspaper op-eds (one in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the other in today’s Washington Post)– about the FCC’s legal authority over the Internet. House Republicans are already making noise about jumping into the policy fray, and another court challenge is probably likely.

The one overarching mission concerning the Internet that the FCC can undertake with some measure of agreement is that of widening the availability of the network to places it doesn’t adequately reach and to people who don’t have broadband access for economic or other reasons. In an age where so much of daily public business–from applying for a job to becoming an informed voter in the presidential election–all but requires a broadband link, far too many remote and rural areas are the victim of market forces where the investment to build infrastructure in sparsely populated areas outweighs the potential for a reasonable return.

Genachowski has argued that by adapting the Universal Service Fund (which helped the telephone network penetrate these same underserved areas) for broadband, providers could get this otherwise impossible job accomplished. Extending broadband availability was one of President Obama’s campaign promises, but the $7.8 billion in federal stimulus funds awarded under the auspices of the National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service have not and will not make a significant dent in the problem.

Why not focus on what is clearly the more important problem and without question in the national interest, and leave the finer points of how service providers and Web companies carry content to sort themselves out? Like it or not, a new, more legally complicated Internet is here.