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Net Neutrality: Groups Respond to FCC Plans With Praise, Frustration

The FCC's shift on open-internet regulations—coming after advocates criticized a plan released last year—won praise from advocacy groups, while telecom and some tech groups suggested the shift could hurt investment in infrastructure.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler’s resume commonly gets scrutinized—particularly his time as an executive for both CTIA: The Wireless Association and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association—whenever he tackles big issues like net neutrality.

But it was another resume point—his time working at NABU, a long-forgotten startup that offered a cable-based alternative to AOL in the mid-1980s—that appeared to drive his decision, announced Wednesday, to propose that internet providers be classified and regulated as public utilities.

Wheeler said the problem with NABU, in comparison to AOL, was that it was limited in reach because of the need to rely on the cable industry as gatekeepers. “While delivering better service, NABU had to depend on cable television operators granting access to their systems,” Wheeler wrote in an op-ed for Wired, contrasting his approach to AOL’s more open modem-based system.

Wheeler’s announcement was bold, considering that just 10 months ago he had proposed a different approach entirely, one that won favor among cable companies and broadband providers. But if the new proposal is approved by the commission in a vote expected later this month, it’s likely to face a major legal battle. Read on for some notable industry reactions to the move.

How Tech Advocates Won Out

Wheeler’s policy shift may have been the result of one of the highest-profile backlashes to a proposed regulatory scheme in recent memory. Last April, when Wheeler proposed splitting the internet into two lanes—allowing internet providers to charge companies more for faster access to consumers—he found himself having to backtrack and getting spoofed by John Oliver.

Advocacy groups in the tech and consumer-rights sphere, who largely praised Wheeler’s letter this week, said the victory came after a well-coordinated campaign that drew a massive level of public interest to what once was an obscure tech issue. And advocates used that attention to help shift the direction the issue was going.

“We [knew] that Tom Wheeler was going to make the decision on this,” Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron told Politico. “He was the guy with the most influence over the details, and the question becomes who has the most influence over him, and that is President Obama.”

Obama eventually did speak up internet regulation, urging the FCC to treat broadband providers as public utilities. Wheeler listened. Advocacy groups were generally happy with Wednesday’s results, if tentative.

“That sounds pretty good, but the devil is always in the details,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation‘s Corynne McSherry wrote Wednesday. “For example, will throttling be acceptable if ISPs claim it is being used to target copyright infringement?”

Tech groups such as Engine, the Internet Association, and the Computer & Communications Industry Association also praised the move.

Not Everyone’s Happy

But the telecom industry has adamantly opposed reclassifying internet access as an “information service” under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, and some industry groups reacted strongly to Wheeler’s plan this week.

Both of Wheeler’s former employers in the association space spoke out against the proposed rules, with National Cable & Telecommunications Association head Michael Powell saying that the Title II distinction “goes far beyond the worthy goal of establishing important net neutrality protections.” Meanwhile, Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO at CTIA: The Wireless Association, told Wireless Week that applying “intrusive regulatory restrictions on mobile broadband” could threaten investment in the mobile sector and said Congress should give the FCC explicit authority to regulate the internet.

The American Cable Association suggested that the Title II classification would harm “small and mid-sized cable broadband providers [that] pose no threat to the open internet” and requested that they be exempted from the new rules.

And at least one tech group, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, argued that Wheeler’s plan represents “a strong shift towards a European-style, precautionary regulation, over-regulating up-front without legitimate justification.”

(iStock/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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