The Obama Administration has been talking about an open Internet for months. Before that, the Obama campaign made it a centerpiece of a technology platform. Now, finally, the idea is getting some traction, and it’s about time.
Julius Genachowski, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has only been in office since June 29, and in that time he’s mostly been busy choosing heads for the Commission bureaus and finding senior staff while sorting through the responsibilities Congress gave the Commission to come up with a broadband plan.
So it’s a great sign of things to come that one of the first actions of the Genachowski era that the Commission took of its own accord was to call some official attention to the fact that Apple was keeping Google’s new Google Voice application off the shelves of the iPhone App Store. A New York Times story on July 28 reported that Apple had rejected two Google apps, including Google Voice. Letters from the FCC to Apple, to Google and, interestingly, to AT&T, were sent out late July 31. That’s warp speed for a government action.
The FCC wanted to know why Apple rejected the Voice application, and whether AT&T, the exclusive purveyor of the iPhone in the U.S., had anything to do with it, and what other applications have been rejected. The answers are due back to the Commission on Aug. 21.
Nothing like this could have conceivably taken place in the past eight years. The hands-off, consumer-be-damned policies of the past were firmly embedded in the psyches of the FCC appointees. Now, the concept of an open network has established at least a small foothold. Granted, there are lots of openness issues still floating around at the Commission. Skype has complained that AT&T will allow use of the Skype service on a wi-fi connection with the iPhone, but not over AT&T’s own 3G service. Similarly, EchoStar has had its video-streaming Slingbox application blocked by AT&T. EchoStar said it was encouraged by the Commission action.
The fact that the Commission is making inquiries about the Apple exclusion should send the proper signal through the industry that a new day is starting to dawn, albeit slowly, at the FCC. Just as the fact that the complaint against Comcast for blocking BitTorrent was a signal to the cable industry about what is acceptable behavior, the right response from the Commission on the Apple action will transmit a much wider message than one simple app rejection on one phone over one service.
AT&T might view Google Voice as part of its mandate that its vendors not “facilitate the business of our competitors.” The issue is much larger and it goes to what had been the fundamental principle of open networks.
Meanwhile, the silence on open networks was equally deafening on Capitol Hill. The new chairman of the House Communications Committee, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), hasn’t listed it high on his agenda. So two of the Internet’s true champions, Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), introduced their own bill, HR 3458, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009.
It was introduced late on July 31 in the hours just before the House went out for its summer break/district work period. The bill embodies the principles of non-discrimination and openness that would bring the Internet out from under the threatened and actual control of the telephone and cable companies and back to the principles on which the Internet was founded. It recognizes the limited competition in the broadband market, and would forbid carriers from blocking or degrading service, or prioritizing traffic for a competitive advantage.
Together, the actions of the FCC and the introduction of the bill in Congress signal that the future of the Internet is now in play in the Washington policy arena. It’s game on. With members of Congress in their home districts for the “district work period” that this is a good time to let them know that Net Neutrality and the future of the Internet is something about which you care, and as a result, it is something about which your members of Congress should care as well. Take advantage of the summer and spread the message. This is not simply about the Internet-activist Netroots. This is about students and businessmen and musicians and artists and writers and mechanics in small towns and urban centers, and everyone else who wants and need a free and open Internet. Now is the time to start speaking up. We’ll let you know when it’s time to stop.