It's Public Vs. Private In Upcoming Net Neutrality Vote

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No one is neutral about controversial net neutrality rules that are set for a vote at the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday. Public interest groups say the rules favor giant phone and cable companies that spend millions lobbying the agency and Congress. The two Republican appointees on the FCC have already declared their opposition, too.


No one in the tech industry is neutral about controversial network neutrality rules that are set for a vote at the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday. The FCCs chairman says the rules would protect the free and open Internet. But public interest groups and tech companies say net neutrality favors the giant phone and cable companies that provide broadband access to millions of Americans.

Joel Rose has more.

JOEL ROSE: This past Wednesday, more than 1500 cupcakes the fancy kind that cost almost $30 a dozen arrived at the FCC in Washington. The gift came courtesy of AT&T, the giant phone and broadband company the commission is charged with regulating.

Ms. GIGI SOHN (President, Public Knowledge): Theres a lot of laughing and joking about it. But, you know, AT&T has been making numerous visits to the FCC chairmans office.

ROSE: Gigi Sohn is president of Public Knowledge, the non-profit group that publicized the cupcake contribution in a blog post last week.

In its own blog post, AT&T said the cupcake delivery to the FCC is an annual tradition. An FCC spokesperson downplayed its significance, saying the commission is both pro-open Internet and pro-cupcake.

But Gigi Sohn isnt laughing. She says the open Internet rules the FCC is set to vote on were shaped by the phone and cable companies that spend millions of dollars a year lobbying the agency and Congress.

Ms. SOHN: A lot of the language thats being debated now was actually written by AT&T lobbyists. And those sections are the ones that the chairman has been most unwilling to change.

ROSE: AT&T declined to be interviewed for this story. But its no secret that the big phone, cable and tech companies have been meeting all year with the FCC and members of Congress, to craft new rules of the road for the Internet.

On one side are such companies as Amazon, Netflix and Skype that want broadband providers to treat all of the traffic on their networks equally, an idea known as net neutrality. On the other side, are those broadband providers.

Ms. REBECCA ARBOGAST (Managing Director, Stifel, Nicolaus Craig Moffett, C. Bernstein, and Co.): In an ideal world for them, there would be no oversight whatsoever.

ROSE: Rebecca Arbogast is an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus.

Ms. ARBOGAST: The cable industry has come out and said you know, although wed rather not have net neutrality rules at all, these are rules that we can live with. AT&T came out with a similar statement.

ROSE: There are a couple of reasons for that tentative support. First, the rules would allow broadband providers to charge companies like Netflix extra fees to get products to their customers faster. And second, broadband providers would be free to slow down or block some applications on their wireless networks, in the name of managing traffic.

Josh Silver, president of the public interest group Free Press, says those are dangerous loopholes.

Mr. JOSH SILVER (President, Free Press): If we allow toll roads to go up on the Internet, in a new way, where these companies control your experience, the Internet will never be the same.

ROSE: Last week, Free Press and other net neutrality backers met with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps and urged him not to approve the proposed rules without major changes. The two Republicans on the commission have already said theyll vote no, because theyre opposed to new broadband regulations. That makes Coppss vote crucial to passing the chairmans open Internet rules.

Mr. MICHAEL COPPS (Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission): There are times in life when maybe nothing is better than something. Would I be prepared to vote no here, if this an item thats unacceptable or does more harm than good? Yes, I am.

ROSE: Copps says he will only vote for the rules with some key changes, including stronger consumer protections for wireless, and stricter limits on so-called fast lanes.

Mr. COPPS: In the final analysis, this is all about whos going to control the experience of consumers when they go online. Up and until now, weve tried to make sure that it was the consumers who were doing that, rather than companies.

ROSE: Copps says its not too late for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to get his vote. But Gigi Sohn at Public Knowledge says Genachowki, who declined our request for an interview, may be forced to do something hes avoided all year: Break with the broadband industry.

Mr. SOHN: Chairman Genachowski is under the misguided notion that if he keeps AT&T in the tent, that somehow that will tamp down Republicans in Congress when they takeover the House of Representatives in January.

ROSE: Indeed, the FCC hasnt even voted on the rules and the political attacks have already begun. Last week, Senate Republicans attached an amendment to the omnibus spending bill that would block the FCC from enforcing net neutrality.

For NPR News, Im Joel Rose.

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