Friday, May 9, 2014

Tech Giants Join Neutrality Furor in Open Letter, FCC Responds with Open Email

Andrew Flanagan/Billboard

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Today has brought two separate reactions to the raging net neutrality debate; the FCC has thrown open its doors, while the most powerful companies on the web have thrown down the gauntlet.

Yesterday, a letter was delivered to the FCC addressing the ongoing debate around a proposed rule that would allow companies to pay for their content to be delivered faster over the "last mile," the connection between peoples' service providers and their homes. The letter, signed by 149 companies from Google to upstart competitor Duckduckgo, says that the change, if enacted, "represents a grave threat to the Internet. Instead of permitting individualized bargaining and discrimination, the Commission’s rules should protect users and Internet companies on both fixed and mobile platforms against blocking, discrimination, and paid prioritization." Mozilla also struck out independent of the letter (it was a signee), calling for the FCC to reclassify broadband. The controversy has also prompted a protest in the spirit of the Occupy movement, as Al Jazeera reports.

The letter brings to mind the "Internet blackout" of January 18, 2012, when Google placed a black bar over its homepage logo and others like Wikipedia made their services unavailable to protest the SOPA and PIPA Acts. It was a dramatic, and effective, demonstration of the power that the Internet's information gatekeepers companies wield. Indeed, if the FCC's fast lane moves forward, a behemoth like Google (with a market capitalization of $349 billion) could, if so inclined and truly motivated by its famous motto, expand its fiber optic access program to major cities in the U.S. and the world, allowing them to ignore the fast lane rule that companies like Comcast and Verizon would, presumably, welcome.

Meanwhile, from the side of regulation, the FCC has responded to criticism of its proposal. Writing on the FCC's blog, commissioner Mignon Clyburn pointed to opinions she voiced four years ago, around the signing of the Open Internet Order.

"Over 100,000 Americans have spoken," Clyburnwrote. "While it is my normal practice not to comment in advance on items which are on circulation out of my deep respect for the integrity of our regulatory and administrative process given the high level of attention and the outpouring of expression on the notice of proposed rulemaking on Open Internet, I felt it was important to highlight my previously stated views." Clyburn goes on to outline four of her opinions from four years ago, around the time that the FCC passed the Open Internet Order. The most salient of Clyburn's bullet points is her support of the FCC's option to reclassify broadband service as a utility, which would allow the agency broad regulatory powers.

As well, the FCC has established an email address for citizens to express their opinions on the rule. If chairman Wheeler and his peers are to be believed, the emails may actually make a difference. If not? The tech industry's trillions might.

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