University IT officials concerned that corporate control of the internet would mean that only major schools could afford premium web access lauded the Federal Communication Commission’s step Oct. 22 toward barring broadband providers from discriminating against certain types of internet traffic.
The FCC’s two Republican commissioners railed against “government intervention” in the broadband market, but FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski argued that establishing so-called “open internet” rules would prevent web providers from abusing their power.
The FCC voted unanimously to begin a process of formalizing net-neutrality rules after four years of discussion that has produced more than 100,000 pages of comments from 40,000 activists, small business owners, and corporate representatives, among other stakeholders.
The Republican commissioners voted to move forward with the rules-making process, but voiced their opposition to Genachowski’s plans.
The move toward an open internet was met with immediate opposition from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who introduced a bill shortly after the FCC vote that would bar federal regulators from establishing net-neutrality rules. McCain said the wireless internet industry has “exploded” since the 1990s largely because companies were free of regulation.
He characterized the FCC’s plans as a “government takeover” of the internet.
“Keeping businesses free from oppressive regulations is the best stimulus for the current economy,” McCain said.
McCain’s Internet Freedom Act of 2009 would likely face fierce opposition from Democrats in the House and Senate. Although many Democrats have supported net neutrality since the issue was first addressed by the FCC is 2005, some have expressed concern about policies that constitute government control of a booming market.
Education-technology advocates said that without net-neutrality rules, the price of online learning soon could prove untenable for students. If broadband providers are left unchallenged, the price of web access could skyrocket in coming years, discouraging students from pursuing web-based college courses, they said.
“The more time a student spent online, the higher [his or her] internet bill would be,” said Larry Johnson, CEO of the Texas-based New Media Consortium, an international coalition of universities, colleges, libraries, and technology companies. “It would come to a point … where [students] wouldn’t want to do distance learning anymore.”
Republican commissioner Robert McDowell reminded the public that the FCC’s vote means the regulators are “starting a process, not ending one,” and he encouraged all concerned parties to voice their opinions in the coming weeks. He added that being opposed to net-neutrality rules does not mean he is against an open internet.
“I do not share the majority’s view that the internet is showing breaks and cracks,” he said. “Nor do I believe that the government is the best tool to fix it.”
Failure to establish net-neutrality rules, Johnson said, would put consumers–including colleges and universities–at “the mercy of a small number of companies.”
“Those companies would have control of a utility that we all need,” he said. “We need this to really protect consumers from price gouging.”
Michael Copps, a Democratic FCC commissioner, said that not every telecommunications company would charge exorbitant fees for web access if net-neutrality rules weren’t passed, but some corporations would take advantage of the lack of regulation.
“I’m not into riverboat gambles that everything will be fine if we just look the other way,” Copps said. “The potential power of this technology is awesome. It can do so much good. Misused, it can fail itself and fail us all. … All of us have an historic obligation to maintain the freedom of the net.”
Wendy Wigen, a government relations officer for higher-education technology advocate EDUCAUSE, said failure to pass net-neutrality regulations would mean the country’s largest universities could pay telecommunications companies for preferential treatment, while small community colleges without similar financial means would be at a distinct disadvantage.
“[Colleges] could pay to be in the [internet] fast lane,” Wigen said. “These managed services would take over what we think of as the public internet. … The idea that our content would be discriminated against is disturbing, to say the least. We don’t want whoever pays the most [to get] the best treatment.”
A group of more than 20 open internet and consumer advocacy organizations sent a letter to Genachowski Oct. 21 that said more than 1.6 million Americans have declared their support for net-neutrality laws.
“They do not want the internet to become just another closed network where large media entities pick winners and losers, like broadcasting and cable,” the letter said.
The letter decried telecom companies’ “vague predictions of doom” that have surfaced as the FCC moves closer to establishing a set of net-neutrality rules.
“This outcry over a proposal the public has yet to see is clearly intended to halt the dialogue over the proper rules of the road for an open internet before it even starts,” the letter said.
Opponents of the FCC’s plans said net neutrality would restrict broadband internet access and make it less affordable. Favoring neutrality over speed and reliability, opponents argued, would hinder the growth of American telecommunications.
“Giant chunks of radio spectrum that could be used to deliver internet access to consumers remain tied up due to legacy rules,” Ryan Radia, a policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said in a statement. “Aggressive liberalization of the airwaves will be essential to promoting consumer welfare and stimulating broadband competition.”
Radia said adoption of net-neutrality rules could mean broadband providers would have to “get permission” from the FCC to “manager their networks.”
“Empowering government to dictate network management would make the internet vulnerable to political manipulation and enable narrow fringe constituencies to wield destructive power over private networks,” he said.
Genachowski said federal regulators were “going to codify the rules of the road” with net-neutrality principals, adding that internet providers wouldn’t be required to alert the FCC before making business decisions.
“We’re not going to require anyone to come to the FCC and ask permission,” Genachowski said after the Oct. 22 vote, according to the FCC’s blog.
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