Thursday, February 29, 2024

Sen. Kerry Urges FCC Democrats to Back Net Neutrality Plan

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A prominent Senate Democrat is calling on the Democratic members of the Federal Communications Commission to back the chairman’s plan to enact a net neutrality framework that falls short of the rigid rules they have advocated.

In a letter to Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a supporter of rules to bar service providers from discriminating against content on their networks, argued that the chairman’s compromise proposal is better than the alternative — no rules at all for the foreseeable future.

“Some advocates for what we consider to be ‘the perfect’ are now urging you to fight and vote against the good,” Kerry said. “I would argue that is short sighted.”

The item that Chairman Julius Genachowski plans to bring to a vote at the commission’s Dec. 21 meeting would initiate a rulemaking process targeting restrictions against ISPs discriminating against lawful content on their networks, but that would leave the door open to paid prioritization arrangements and not extend to wireless providers. That proposal, modeled after a legislative effort that stalled after House Republicans withdrew support, emerged after months of negotiations among FCC staffers and leaders, lawmakers, advocates and industry representatives.

Many of the biggest phone and cable companies and their trade organizations have endorsed the plan, but the two Republican commissioners have both panned it, vowing to vote against it when the commission meets later this month.

Meanwhile, ardent backers of net neutrality rules have also criticized Genachowski’s proposal. Media-reform group Free Press has branded the measure “fake net neutrality.” The Open Internet Coalition, whose members include leading Web companies like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), has said it supports the plan, but called it a “first step,” committing to work with the FCC to strengthen the final rules.

Genachowski’s plan backs away from an earlier proposal that would have reclassified broadband access as a telecommunications service under the FCC’s charter statute, a move that the cable and phone industries lobbied vigorously to defeat. Supporters of so-called Title II reclassification said the move was necessary to solidify the FCC’s legal authority over broadband service following a court ruling earlier this year, while opponents argued it would saddle industry players with excessively burdensome regulations.

But Kerry, who has spoken out in favor of reclassification, a policy championed by Commissioner Copps, urged the commissioners to be pragmatic in deciding whether to support Genachowski’s proposal, arguing that the baseline protections against content discrimination would be an improvement over the agency’s current absence of any clear authority.

“While an outright ban on the ability of network owners to act as gatekeepers in any way may be what we would prefer, if the proposed rule can empower the agency, advocates, engineers and the media to police practices that could threaten innovation or speech at the edge of the network then we should embrace it,” Kerry said.

Copps and Clyburn have both said they would like to see the rules strengthened in the final order.

Stifel Nicolaus analyst Rebecca Arbogast believes that when the vote comes, Copps and Clyburn will back the chairman’s proposal, and that Kerry’s appeal will likely prod them in that direction.

“Commissioner Copps has been particularly vocal in advocating a Title II approach, but we suspect he may focus more on strengthening the substantive net neutrality requirements than on broadband reclassification,” Arbogast wrote in a research note. “We believe Mr. Kerry’s letter puts pressure on Mr. Copps and Ms. Clyburn to stick with the chairman’s basic approach.”

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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