Net Neutrality’s Weird Week

On Thursday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski blinked. He balked. He backed away from phone and cable companies and moved toward broadband policies that will preserve the open Internet and promote universal access.

For a moment, the chairman had a lot of people worried. A Washington Post story from earlier in the week indicated that Genachowski was going to cave to pressure from AT&T and Comcast lobbyists and abandon his pledge to protect Net Neutrality.

Several sources within the agency painted a picture of a chairman with no appetite to do battle with entrenched special interests. And these companies would have kept their stranglehold on policymaking at the FCC were it not for the massive public response in the wake of the Post’s story.

Thousands of supporters called the White House to complain about Genachowski’s reported inaction; others kept phones ringing off the hook in the chairman's office for days; and nearly 250,000 signed their names to a letter demanding that the FCC reclaim its authority under the law and keep corporate gatekeepers from dictating what information we can access online.

The outcry came from all corners and it pierced through the usual clamor of lobbyists. On Thursday Genachowski responded, proposing a “Title II” option that would give teeth to Net Neutrality protections, and allow the agency to regain stronger legal footing in its efforts to connect people to a fast, affordable and open Internet, as envisioned in the national broadband plan.

The chairman described his proposal as a “third way” – balancing the interests of consumers against the needs of industry. Such political kabuki didn’t staunch the tide of complaints from Comcast, AT&T and their functionaries on Capitol Hill.

The incumbents “will be ferocious in their opposition to proposals that impose even minimal government oversight,” writes Free Press Policy Counsel Aparna Sridhar. “Ensuring that this regulatory shift sets the groundwork for good policymaking will require courage in the coming weeks.”

While this stormy week has come to an end, the regulatory debate will continue to raise dust inside the Beltway. The discussion can get arcane and and technical. From the perspective of most Americans though, it's simply about getting fast, cheap and free-flowing Internet access in a marketplace where we have real choices among carriers.

Phone and cable companies dominated communications policy throughout the first decade of this century. They pushed a Bush FCC to re-regulate the Internet access in their favor -- saying it would prompt greater competition and better services. But they followed the Bush-era rule changes with a wave of mergers that reduced market choices, pushed prices skyward and delivered slower speeds than what's now available in other developed countries. Now they're talking up plans to be gatekeepers to the information that flows across these pipes.

And that's why we need to stay on alert. As this issue comes to a head at the FCC over the next few months, we'll need to keep up public pressure on the FCC, lobby members of Congress and continue to debunk the industry lies about Net Neutrality. And we'll need to step up again if Chairman Genachowski starts to waffle on protecting the open Internet.

In an age when corporations can spend limitless sums to influence policy, strong arm bureaucrats and sway election outcomes, the public must stand together in defense of the only open communications platform we have left.