from the let's-play-make-believe dept
With Title II based net neutrality rules pretty much a sure thing, the mega-ISPs have been engaged in a last-ditch attempt to derail the FCC ahead of an expected February 26 announcement and vote. This has included significant pressure on lawmakers to rewrite the Communications Act with a core focus on hamstringing the FCC by eroding both their authority — and their budget. ISPs are also pushing well compensated Congressfolk to pass new, weaker neutrality rules in an effort to preempt tougher Title II provisions.
At the vanguard of this latter effort sit Senator John Thune and Representative Fred Upton. The two have been busily firing up an utterly adorable stage play the last week in which they profess to love net neutrality so much, they’re starting a “public conversation” about new, bi-partisan neutrality rules they hope to pass. As part of this campaign, the two took to the Reuters op/ed page last week to convince the public that while they once saw neutrality rules as a “solution in search of a problem,” they now think we need tough, comprehensive, bipartisan rules crafted after a painstaking public conversation:
“In the coming days, we plan to pursue a public process to draft and enact bipartisan legislation that would protect the open Internet. We hope FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and the public will join Congress in working to build and enact a shared set of principles that will protect Internet users, promote innovation, encourage investment ? and withstand legal challenge.
We have made this an early priority of this Congress, demonstrating we can come together on a bipartisan basis to protect the vitality of the Internet ? now so indispensable to our economy and way of life. Enduring, long-term protections for our digital freedoms are something we should all support.”
Clearly this is an amazing, unprecedented example of Congress working through its traditional partisan dysfunction and coming together to ensure the Internet is protected from the lack of last mile competition, nurturing a more robust Internet economy for generations to come. Just kidding. It’s all bullshit.
What’s actually happening here is Thune and Upton are trying to force through a law written by ISP lawyers that is actually weaker than the original FCC rules AT&T and Comcast supported (but Verizon sued to overturn). By “public conversation,” they mean a series of public hearings in which the usual assortment of think tankers, fauxcademics, sock puppets and other ISP-payrolled policy folk gush over the proposal as a more “sensible” solution than Title II. Except when you actually bother to read their proposal (pdf), you’ll note that the rules are so stuffed with loopholes, they fail to protect net neutrality whatsoever.
The bill’s language leaves the FCC with less flexibility and authority to enforce net neutrality than ever before. It exempts anything having to do with copyright infringement, allows prioritization of a company’s own content (provided payments aren’t made), doesn’t address discrimination via access charges, and has a painfully ambiguous definition of “reasonable network management.” It also fails to cover the areas where the most important anti-competitive gatekeeper shenanigans are occurring right now: usage caps, payment schemes to bypass those caps (like AT&T’s Sponsored Data), and interconnection.
Consumer groups like Public Knowledge note the proposal only prohibits the kind of ham-fisted offenses ISPs were never even considering (blocking websites or services outright). Otherwise it’s a giant wishlist for all of the “creative” gatekeeper pricing efforts carriers have been cooking up for several years, while leaving the FCC largely powerless to protect consumers from them:
“For example, these principles would not have prevented AT&T from limiting FaceTime to particular tiers of service ? as it tried to do in 2012. It would not address discriminatory use of data caps, such as Comcast has used to favor its own streaming content over that of rivals. It would not address potential issues arising at Internet interconnection, the gateway to the last mile. Even worse, by eliminating any flexibility on rulemaking or enforcement, the bill would prevent the FCC from addressing any new forms of discrimination and threats to openness that arise.”
Still, some folks in the press were impressed that neutrality opponents were striking a “conciliatory note,” seemingly portraying Thune and Upton as courageous for reaching across the aisle. That’s giving this effort way too much credit, as they’re just pantomiming according to a provided script. Worse, the two discard the last four years of progress in net neutrality discussions by actually making their proposal weaker than the rules crafted with Google, Verizon and AT&T’s heavy participation in 2010. Thune and Upton’s efforts are little more than a mule in a dress trying to do a Marilyn Monroe impression, and it’s huge step backward for those interested in meaningful neutrality protections.