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White House Backing Away from Net Neutrality? Not So Much

January 10th, 2010, 04:01 am admin Leave a comment Go to comments

An opinion column at CNET News suggests that the White House is backing away from the strong Net Neutrality position taken by FCC Chairman Genachowski. Larry Downes, “nonresident fellow at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet & Society,” writes:

The Obama administration and its allies at the Federal Communications Commission are retreating from a militant version of Net neutrality regulations first outlined by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in September.

That’s my reading of a number of recent developments, underscored by comments made by government speakers on a panel on the first day of a Tech Policy Summit at CES in Las Vegas….

The administration is clearly backtracking. But why?

Part of the reason is some unexpected political pressure, including a letter signed by 72 congressional Democrats opposing the FCC’s proposed rules soon after they were announced.

But the bigger explanation is the growing priority within the administration for nationwide, affordable broadband service. In the course of preparing the national broadband plan, mandated by the 2009 stimulus bill, universal high-speed access has taken on increased significance in the government’s hopes for a rapid economic recovery. Beyond the current financial woes, Congress, the FCC and the White House all recognize the importance of improving the communications infrastructure to maintain U.S. competitiveness in technology innovation….

The major carriers are making the investments, and have every business reason to make more. But the Net neutrality rules, depending on how the FCC defines key terms, could hamstring their efforts to make their money back. Net neutrality is making Wall Street uncomfortable about financing broadband deployment. That in turn is making the White House nervous.

Net neutrality is turning out to be a noisy side show and a growing distraction from the real priority for both the White House and the FCC: getting the country wired for recovery.

The argument that somehow the administration had completely changed position on the criticality of Net Neutrality as a key component of expanding broadband deployment and the recovery plan was a new one to me. I asked Tim Karr, campaign director for Free Press and the smartest Net Neutrality expert I know, for his take on this interpretation:

Downes offers a series of loose assumptions and scant evidence to support his idea that the White House is backing away from Net Neutrality.

The notion that Net Neutrality is a “sideshow” when it comes to the “real priority” of using the Internet for our recovery blithely ignores the role an open Internet plays to fuel innovation and economic growth in the country.

I gather Downes was too busy conjuring conclusions to have read yesterday’s report from several NYU legal scholars and economists who find that Net Neutrality fosters an essential “open and entrepreneurial dynamic” that “creates billions of dollars in value for American public.” (http://policyintegrity.org/documents/Free_to_Invest.pdf)

The idea that Net Neutrality thwarts investment in network improvements has been thoroughly debunked by real market data. And connecting more people to a non-Neutral (and therefore value-less) Internet is not a sound economic solution.

There has been a concerted effort by AT&T to undermine Genachowski’s strong NN position, including a massive astroturfing campaign with progressive bloggers and organizations (of which I’ve been a target, receiving a handful of e-mails from USIIA, a proxy for AT&T and the phone and cable industry) in an attempt to convince us that strong NN means massive job loss and thus Democratic losses. That effort did get 72 Congressional Dems (all but two of whom received “received campaign donations this year from Internet service providers, the companies most likely to be impacted by new regulations”). But there’s no evidence, outside of Downes’ interpretation, that the administration is wavering.

The FCC is still taking public comments on its strong NN proposed rule-making. Save the Internet has an easy-to-use online tool that you can use to add your support for the proposed rule. But you have to act soon–the comment period closes next Thursday, Jan. 14.


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