The net neutrality debate is stirring up passions across the spectrum from an order of Benedictine nuns in Kansas to lobbying giants such as AT&T, whose staff handed out gourmet cupcakes at the Federal Communications Commission building Wednesday.
Driving the flurry of activity is the FCC’s intention to vote on a final plan on net neutrality at its Dec. 21 meeting. The various sides made their closing pitches to the five-member commission Tuesday, the deadline for outside interests to submit comments or lobby on the proposed regulations.
Open-Internet advocacy groups are urging the FCC to take a bolder stand on enforcing net neutrality even as telecommunications executives have lobbied the federal regulators to proceed cautiously — or not at all.
Earlier this month, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski unveiled a compromise plan modeled after legislation crafted by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). The plan would prevent Internet providers from restricting content but still give broadband providers flexibility to manage their networks and base pricing for services on usage. The Waxman plan had drawn the support of a variety of stakeholders including high-tech companies as well as Verizon and AT&T.
But 13 open-Internet advocates met last week with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democratic appointee who is crucial to passage of the plan, to express their opposition to the compromise.
The groups, which include Consumers Union, Public Knowledge, the New America Foundation, Netflix Inc. and Skype, are concerned that the new regulations won’t cover wireless broadband and will allow providers to engage in base pricing for services. Some of these advocates also want the FCC to reclassify broadband as a telephone service, which would subject it to a broader regulation.
Art Brodsky, the spokesman for Public Knowledge, said that Genachowski had fashioned a compromise intended to deflect political opposition from Republicans and satisfy telecommunications giants. But Brodsky added that no matter what plan the chairman devised, he will still be attacked by Republicans on Capitol Hill and therefore should put forward the strongest regulations possible.
“The chairman wanted something that would insulate him politically, but whatever he comes up with, he will get smacked up,” Brodsky said.
The Cupcake Lobby
Brodsky took a lighthearted swipe at AT&T in an e-mail that noted the company’s staff had been going through the FCC building Wednesday giving out what he described as “dozens and dozens of Georgetown Cupcakes — the very rich, very good ones that cost $29/dozen.”
“It will be a nice treat for the first day of deliberations on Net Neutrality,” said the e-mail, which was titled “Federal Cupcake Commission.”
AT&T quickly sought to defuse the cupcake controversy.
Bob Quinn, the company’s vice president of federal regulation and chief privacy officer, replied on the company’s public policy blog that AT&T has provided sweets to policymakers as well as journalists and others for many years during the holiday season.
“We just figured that after being served hot coffee and waffles the Commission was up for something sweeter,” he wrote. Quinn suggested that Public Knowledge was upset that its members didn’t get any cupcakes.
“Well consider it done, they are on the way,” he wrote.
Despite the brief burst of sugary holiday repartee, the push for Internet regulation is serious business on all sides. Republicans who will assume control of the House have been critical of Genachowski’s plans to regulate the Internet.
Comcast, which successfully sued the FCC over net neutrality rules, now backs Genachowski’s compromise. Comcast has been lobbying the FCC through its trade group, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
Kyle McSlarrow, president of the NCTA, and James Cicconi, AT&T’s chief lobbyist, discussed the net neutrality proposal on Monday with Edward Lazarus, FCC chief of staff, and Zachary Katz, legal adviser to Genachowski, according to FCC filings. They discussed a number of issues including the definition of broadband access, prohibitions on blocking and degrading legal content, nondiscrimination and reasonable network management, and application to wireless platforms.
Meetings in Public View
On the same day, other AT&T executives met with Copps and his advisers to discuss the issue. According to the filings, the AT&T officials urged the FCC to reject calls to ban arrangements for “paid prioritization” of service and any regulations that “inhibit investment and innovation in wireless broadband Internet access services.”
On Monday and Tuesday, Verizon executives met with three FCC commissioners and their staffs; Copps, Republican Meredith Attwell Baker and Democrat Mignon Clyburn.
In its filing, the company stated that it expressed concern with any net neutrality plan that imposed more regulation on wireless service as well as concern about media reports that the commission “may be prepared to establish for itself a much more pervasive role in regulating Internet services based on broad jurisdictional theories.”
The filings show that former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), president of CTIA, also met with Clyburn and her staff Monday and argued that net neutrality rules are not needed for mobile wireless broadband. On Tuesday, Walter McCormick, the CEO of US Telecom, had a telephone conversation with Copps in which he “emphasized the continuing absence of a problem for which the proposed Internet regulations are supposedly intended to address.”
Arguing the other side was Paul Misener, vice president of global policy for Amazon.com, who spoke by phone with Katz, Genachowksi’s legal adviser. According to the FCC filings, Misener “reiterated Amazon.com’s longstanding and continuing support for rules to protect the fundamental openness and growth of the Internet.”
Some supporters of strong net neutrality rules that apply to wireless broadband are taking their case right to the companies. A group of investors who include Mike D of the music group Beastie Boys and the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica of Atchison, Kan., are trying to pressure telecom companies to maintain open access to the Internet on wireless networks. They have filed proposals with AT&T, Comcast and Verizon calling for shareholder votes on open access to the Internet.
“Net neutrality really is the free speech issue of the 21st century,” Michael Connor, executive director of Open MIC, a nonprofit spearheading the shareholder challenges, said in a statement.