Net Neutrality: We're Still Waiting

Exactly a year ago, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski made a major promise to deliver on Net Neutrality. "If we wait too long to preserve a free and open Internet, it will be too late," he told an influential audience in Washington.

We're still waiting.

Instead of doing what's right for Internet users, Genachowski has dodged, dithered and delayed. But it's not too late to turn things around. And Genachowski's legacy as chair of the FCC - either as a champion of openness or as a toothless bureaucrat - rests on what he does now.

The path forward seemed much clearer on September 21, 2009, when Genachowski went to the Brookings Institution to deliver his first major speech as head of the FCC. Genachowski didn't mince words. He declared that without Net Neutrality protections, "We could see the Internet's doors shut to entrepreneurs, the spirit of innovation stifled, a full and free flow of information compromised."

He continued:

"The fact that the internet is evolving rapidly does not mean we can or should abandon the underlying values fostered by an open network or the important goal of setting rules of the road to protect the free and open internet. Saying nothing and doing nothing would impose its own form of unacceptable cost."

"Doing nothing" didn't seem to be an option. He had a majority of the votes at the FCC and support from the president and leaders of Congress.

But what a difference a year can make.

Since his September 2009 Brookings' speech, Genachowski has made little progress to protect Net Neutrality. He started a rule making process last October but hasn't made any rules.

To be fair, things got more complicated when a federal appeals court ruled the FCC lacked the authority to regulate broadband because of some bad decisions during the Bush administration. But instead of seizing the opportunity to restore the agency's ability to protect consumers, Genachowski wavered and retreated.

He eventually came up with a "Third Way" proposal, then immediately started backing away from his own idea, ducking questions from the media regarding his commitment to the proposal.

Then his top deputy tried to broker a disastrous closed-door deal with industry that virtually ignored overwhelming public outcry in favor of a strong Net Neutrality standard. And when Google and Verizon came forward with a vastly unpopular proposal of their own, the chairman sputtered some more.

His only response has been to solicit more public input on questions that have already been asked and answered.

Obama's Waffler

Remember, this is the man whom President Obama put into office with the explicit understanding that his first priority was to protect Net Neutrality. "I am a strong supporter of Net Neutrality," Obama pledged in 2007. "As president I'm going to make sure that that is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward."

It's clear from his own statements that the FCC chairman knows what meaningful rules should look like.

The first thing he must do is restore the FCC's authority to protect Internet users by "reclassifying" broadband under the law. Next, the FCC must enact Net Neutrality rules that safeguard the open Internet for all users, no matter how they get online.

Genachowski has been swamped with public support for the move but seems intent on inaction - and doing nothing that would upset the powerful special interests that make up the phone and cable lobby.

Genachowski now has a choice. He can make a decisive and principled move to protect Net Neutrality and be remembered as a hero of the Internet, or he can continue to waffle and be remembered as the FCC head who stood idle as our online freedoms were handed over to the likes of AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.

He needs to decide, and soon.