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Liberal group worries about FCC on Net neutrality

Politicians and at least one liberal interest group, alarmed that the FCC may leave broadband providers unregulated, redouble their efforts to push for sweeping new Internet rules.

Politicians and at least one liberal interest group, alarmed at the possibility that the Federal Communications Commission may leave broadband providers unregulated, are redoubling their efforts to push for sweeping Internet rules.

On Wednesday, two senior Democratic politicians sent a letter (PDF) to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski saying that imposing Net neutrality regulations on broadband providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon is "essential." And Free Press, the liberal lobby group that's led the fight to hand the FCC more Internet regulatory authority, hastily convened a conference call to warn that President Obama's Net neutrality promises may be left unfulfilled.

The impetus for this sudden public relations campaign: an article in The Washington Post earlier in the week, which reported that Genachowski "has indicated he wants to keep broadband services deregulated," a position favored by companies that say sweeping new regulations will deter investment and be overly burdensome.

Ironically, perhaps, Genachowski has been a longtime supporter of Net neutrality, as CNET reported when he was nominated for the job in March 2009. And, in a move that surprised no one, the onetime Democratic Senate aide proposed formal regulations in a speech six months later.

The problem for Genachowski and his erstwhile allies arrived last month in the form of a unanimous ruling by a federal appeals court, which said the FCC does not have the legal authority to slap Net neutrality regulations on Comcast or other broadband providers. If Congress had authorized the agency to penalize Comcast for throttling BitTorrent, there would have been no grounds for a lawsuit. But Congress has repeatedly declined to provide that authorization.

Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, said in a conference call Wednesday morning that he was "stunned to hear that the Federal Communications Commission might abandon its authority," and attributed the apparent switch to "yet another example of the largest industries in our country influencing public policy."

"That means they're not fulfilling Obama's promise," added Marvin Ammori, a Free Press adviser and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Law, referring to the FCC. "It's a sham, essentially."

Ammori was referring to repeated statements from Obama, including during the presidential campaign when he said: "I am a strong supporter of Net neutrality." During a February 2010 YouTube interview, he reiterated the same view. (On the other hand, however, there have been some signs even before the appeals court's decision that the White House is backing away from a strong Net neutrality stand.)

One option, that Free Press and like-minded groups prefer, is for the FCC to try to reclassify broadband services as a "telecommunications service"--effectively importing some of the rules from the analog telephone era and extending those to the modern Internet. That would not require Congress to enact a new law.

Wednesday's letter to the FCC, written by Rep. Henry Waxman and Sen. John Rockefeller, the chairmen of the relevant committees, says the agency "should consider all viable options" including "a change in classification." Both politicians lauded (PDF) Genachowski's earlier Net neutrality efforts last fall.

But reclassification amounts to a kind of nuclear option, and has prompted predictions of economic turmoil and years of litigation. A recent report sponsored by Mobile Future, which counts AT&T as a member, says Net neutrality laws could endanger 65,000 jobs by 2011, with the total economy-wide impact growing to 1.5 million jobs affected by 2020 because of reduced revenue growth in the broadband sector. AT&T, of course, has lobbied against Net neutrality laws.

In addition, there have been some signs that the pro-Net neutrality coalition may be fragmenting. A few years ago, Microsoft was lobbying for new laws. But the company told the FCC last week that "access providers have managed their networks in a reasonable manner without presenting widespread or insurmountable challenges to the open Internet" and that prioritizing some traffic over others is perfectly reasonable.

Correction at 1:30 p.m.: This story initially misstated the day the letter was sent. It was sent Wednesday, May 5.