Midterm Elections May Hinder Net Neutrality

Rules protecting the open Internet are unlikely to pass during the lame duck session of Congress, or in the next session, as Republicans assume control of several key House committees. That leaves tech companies and public interest groups having to make the case for more regulation to the FCC. But the agency's chairman has shown little appetite for a fight with the telecom industry.

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The recent midterm elections could affect the future of the Internet. Democrats in Congress, along with the Federal Communications Commission, had been crafting rules to protect what they call a free and open Internet. But Republicans say the Internet isn't broken, doesn't need fixing. Now with Republicans about to gain control of the House, advocates of new rules for an open Internet are pinning their fading hopes on the FCC. Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: If the debate over how to regulate broadband Internet access strikes you as dry, youre not alone. But the next chapter may get a little rowdier.

Mr. BRUCE MEHLMAN (Lobbyist): Does the FCC say were going to figure out a way to hammer out a compromise? Or do they say were putting the monster truck in drive?

(Soundbite of engine revving)

ROSE: That was Bruce Mehlman, a lobbyist for the telecommunications industry, and possibly the first person to ever compare the Federal Communications Commission to a monster truck.

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of engine revving)

OK, lets throw it in reverse for a minute. Technology companies and public interest groups want to see more regulation of broadband Internet access to ensure a level playing field for all websites and applications. An idea known by the decidedly un-rowdy phrase net neutrality. Gigi Sohn is the president of Public Knowledge, a Washington DC nonprofit.

Ms. GIGI SOHN (President, Public Knowledge): The public wants an Internet where they are in control of what services they can access and what websites they can access.

ROSE: But the phone and cable companies that actually provide that access? They say the market is working fine, and we dont need more rules.

Again, telecom industry lobbyist Bruce Mehlman.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Without a heavy regulatory framework in place, with the marketplace being the marketplace, weve had 10 years of incredible success in broadband and broadband applications and content. Whats the problem that we need to regulate to fix?

ROSE: Well, there is the time Comcast was caught trying to block its users from sharing large files. The cable giant says it was just trying to manage traffic. Consumer advocates say it was throttling competition. But when the FCC tried to discipline Comcast it lost in court, leaving the agencys authority over broadband providers up in the air.

Democrat Henry Waxman the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee tried to negotiate a net neutrality bill before the midterm election. Heres what he said at the time.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): We have spent a great deal of time with the carriers, the phone and cable companies, with the consumer groups, with the high tech groups. I think we developed as close a consensus as we possibly could. But the Republicans decided they didnt want to be part of this effort.

ROSE: Waxman hasnt said whether hell try to revive the bill during the current lame duck session. But Republicans, who are poised to take control of the committee, including Cliff Stearns of Florida, are urging him not to.

Representative CLIFF STEARNS (Republican, Florida): Many of us think thats the wrong avenue to present any kind of substantive issue like that in the lame duck. So I would urge Mr. Waxman not to offer net neutrality.

ROSE: That leaves advocates of a free and open Internet, like Gigi Sohn, to make the case for more regulation at the Federal Communications Commission.

Ms. SOHN: Its become eminently clear that if net neutrality is going to get done and I believe that this FCC chairman wants it to get done it has to be done in his house.

ROSE: FCC chairman Julius Genachowski declined to be interviewed for this story. If Genachowski does push for net neutrality now if he decides to throw the monster truck in drive hell get plenty of opposition from congressional Republicans like Cliff Stearns.

Rep. STEARNS: I think its a bad idea to let them do it unilaterally. I think Congress has the jurisdiction.

ROSE: But the FCC chairman may disagree. Whatever happens, its a given that he will face tough questioning on Capitol Hill. And its conceivable that Republicans would try to block funding for his agenda. But Gigi Sohn at Public Knowledge thinks its not too late for Genachowski to get behind the wheel.

Ms. SOHN: Chairman Genachowski came to the FCC saying Im all about consumers. Im all about what the consumer wants. Its time for him to act on that promise.

ROSE: On the campaign trail, candidate Barack Obama pledged his support for net neutrality. If the FCC is going to make good on that promise, it may have to drive over a big pile of Republican obstacles.

For NPR News, Im Joel Rose.

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