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Globe Editorial

After Google-Verizon fizzle, FCC should force Net neutrality

August 17, 2010

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THE “LEGISLATIVE framework proposal’’ on net neutrality released by Google and Verizon last week was a shock and a disappointment for those who had bought into Google’s motto of “Don’t be evil.’’ It’s a sad example of what happens when corporations are allowed to write regulatory rules — and why the Federal Communications Commission needs to re-seize the reins on broadband regulation.

Net neutrality — the concept that Internet service providers shouldn’t be able to “shape’’ traffic, by, say, providing access to certain, popular sites at a speedier rate than newer, less popular ones — is one of the defining issues for the future of communications. Google had long been seen as an important ally of neutrality advocates, but its proposal with Verizon represents a troubling turnaround.

The proposal suggests that all wirebound broadband Internet traffic should be treated neutrally, but then goes on to carve out a myriad of loopholes, most of them very broadly defined. Perhaps most jarringly, the proposal contrives a difference between wired and wireless broadband and exempts providers of the latter from neutrality requirements altogether.

Verizon, then, could decide to partner with a major Hollywood studio for a streaming video service, and then favor that service so that its users enjoy speedy streaming, while users of other video applications see their connections crawl along at a snail pace. This would make it difficult for new video applications to be developed, since without the benefit of the speedy connection enjoyed by industry-favored applications, they would face even more of an uphill battle than usual.

Tellingly, Google and Verizon see a rather limited role for the FCC in regulating the Internet: The commission “would enforce the consumer protection and nondiscrimination requirements through case-by-case adjudication, but would have no rulemaking authority with respect to those provisions.’’ This tooth extraction would leave American Internet users without a federal agency keeping their service providers honest.

The FCC brought part of this on itself by putting broadband Internet access in an “information services’’ rather than a “telecommunications services’’ category in 2002, largely deregulating it. This set up a DC Circuit Court ruling earlier this year that effectively stripped the FCC of power to regulate service providers.

Congress could fix this by passing a net neutrality bill, but Senator John Kerry, who chairs the communications subcommittee, said that is unlikely to happen this year. Luckily, there’s another solution: the FCC can rewrite the rules and reclassify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service for the purposes of regulation.

Needless to say, there are opponents of this approach. Some activists speak of “regulatory capture,’’ under which ideologues or industry-affiliated wonks could come to control the regulatory apparatus. And the industry giants don’t want to be regulated at all. But at the moment, the choice appears to be between having major industries self-regulate their Internet behavior, and having the FCC regulate it.

Given that the Google-Verizon proposal seems helpful primarily to Google and Verizon at the expense of an open, innovation-friendly Internet, it’s time for the FCC to step in.

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