If there is anything good to be said about the newest staff draft of the House's version of telecom legislation, it is that at least there is a draft which will be the vehicle when the Telecom Subcommittee get together next week for the markup.
Until now, we and the other groups and companies working to preserve an open Internet could talk only in general terms about the issue known as Net Neutrality. Now, we have a specific provision to look at. (Note: like others, I don't like the term “net neutrality,” but will use it until something better comes along. Any ideas?)
The draft gives the FCC power to do something it could already do if it chose to. Back in September, in a “compromise,” the FCC issues four principles which gave consumers certain expectations for use of the Internet at a time when there would be, at best, two competitors in the market. The Commission chose not to enforce them, so as nice as saying that consumers are entitled to access the lawful content of their choice might be, or that consumers are entitled to competition might be, in reality those are simply sentiments and nothing more.
The Commission said nothing in its principles, weak as they are, about the service provider side of the equation, which is where the more subtle harms will be played out.
So for legislation to allow the FCC to enforce weak guidelines the Commission chose already not to enforce, let's just say it's not the major step forward we would have liked.
The other details in the bill similarly aren't helpful to maintaining an open Internet. A complaint process that could drag out forever, a ban on rulemaking (even if the FCC wanted one) and a one-shot study don't further the cause.
What you have is a deal brokered for the telephone companies and cable companies. The telephone companies get into the cable business (providing video programming) quickly through a national franchise with no requirements to serve any part of a community. Cable gets the same expedited treatment as its local franchises expire.
We didn't oppose the national video franchising for the Bells, on the theory that they would provide at least some video competition for cable. On the other hand, having the two industries set up with a semi-permanent duopoly with no guarantees of non-discrimination is not acceptable, either. There are no rules for the broadband era, as there were guarantees when the Internet started in the dial-up copper-wire days. The FCC, with an assist from the U.S. Supreme Court, saw to that last year.
No one is asking for full-scale regulation to be put back on the Bells, or even the cable industry. What we want is for some non-discrimination rules to be put in place to curb abuses. The draft bill doesn't do that, and as a result, the open Internet we know now is in danger of being changed drastically as we move more and more into broadband and the service providers fill the regulatory vacuum in ways they could not before.
It's not obvious that the people on Capitol Hill are listening to us. Maybe they will listen to you.