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The FCC's neutral Net

The GOP's argument is that the Internet has thrived without government regulation. But the FCC is seeking to ensure that technology and innovation determine which content and services prevail online.

March 03, 2011

Republicans are so determined to block the Federal Communications Commission's proposed Net neutrality rules that they're pulling out a little-used law that gives Congress the chance to second-guess federal agencies before their regulations go into effect. The GOP's argument is that the Internet has thrived without government regulation, so there's no reason to start now. That's a fine sentiment, but the point of the rules is to protect the Net from being manipulated by the handful of giant phone and cable TV companies that dominate the market for home broadband services. Reversing the commission's order would invite those companies to pick winners and losers among websites and services, potentially strangling the openness and innovation that has been vital to the Internet economy.

The commission's neutrality order, adopted in December, strikes a reasonable balance between Internet service providers' desire to pursue innovative business models and consumers' ability to access legal sites and services without interference from their ISPs. The order bars broadband providers from unfairly favoring or disfavoring any lawful sites or applications on their Internet access services, but leaves open the possibility for them to create optional, managed service tiers that give priority to certain types of traffic, such as video from their partners. It also exempts wireless broadband networks, which are evolving rapidly, from most of the new neutrality rules.

House Republicans already voted to bar the FCC from enforcing the order, and two telecommunications companies have asked an appeals court to overturn it. But that's apparently not enough. Soon, a House committee is expected to approve a resolution of disapproval that seeks to block not just the order but any similar FCC action.

The court appeal is a meaningful test, but the resolution of disapproval is more of a gimmick. Under the 1996 law that authorized them, resolutions of disapproval must pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the president. There's virtually no chance that President Obama, who made Net neutrality a campaign promise, will sign a resolution if it somehow makes it way through the Senate, and absolutely no chance of Congress overriding the veto.

Instead, the GOP attack on the Net neutrality order seems intended mainly as a show of force that, win or lose, would discourage the commission from enforcing the new rules. Rather than railing against the evils of regulation, opponents of the order should consider the fact that most U.S. households have access to only one or two Internet providers that offer affordable broadband service. Which content and services prevail online should be determined by technology and innovation, not by the duopoly that acts as a gateway to broadband.

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