Democrats' split over Net neutrality widens

Bill Clinton's old group, the Democratic Leadership Council, says "no" to the Democrat-controlled FCC's plan to regulate broadband.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read

news analysis The Democratic Party's internal split over Net neutrality keeps getting wider.

On Tuesday, a group of centrist Democrats once headed by former President Bill Clinton warned federal regulators not to regulate broadband providers without authorization from Congress.

An article by Harold Ford, the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, says such a move will "create massive uncertainty for investors" and "complicate our goal of universal access and adoption."

Ford's warning comes a day after 111 members of Congress, including 74 House Democrats, told the Federal Communications Commission not to go ahead with regulatory plans announced on May 6 by its chairman, Obama appointee Julius Genachowski.

Republicans are generally critical of the FCC proposing to regulate broadband providers' business practices, while Democrats have been a bit more supportive, even going so far as to embed the idea into their 2008 official party platform. An unsuccessful 2006 House floor vote, for instance, fell largely along party lines, with 95 percent of the GOP members opposing.

If the Democratic Party is now internally riven, as it appears to be, there's little chance of Congress spitting out any legislation in the near future. Something like that happened with the Republicans' intra-party discord that led to the demise of an immigration bill three years ago.

The current dispute arose after a federal appeals court last month unanimously ruled that the FCC's attempt to slap Net neutrality regulations on Internet providers--in a case that grew out of Comcast throttling BitTorrent transfers--was not authorized by Congress. The opinion called the FCC's approach "flatly inconsistent" with the law.

Supporters of Net neutrality say that new Internet regulations or laws are necessary to prevent broadband providers from restricting content or prioritizing one type of traffic over another. Broadband providers and many conservative and free-market groups, on the other hand, say that some of the proposed regulations would choke off new innovations and could even require awarding e-mail spam and telemedicine the identical priorities.

For a day or so earlier this month, Genachowski seemed to be wavering, and perhaps even favoring an approach that would have left broadband services unregulated. But after pressure from liberal advocacy groups, the FCC announced plans on May 6 to resuscitate its Net neutrality rules through a legal dodge that, agency lawyers say, stands a better chance of surviving an all-but-inevitable legal challenge.

Conservatives have delighted in savaging the plan. Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform said: "Wrapping pleasant rhetoric about 'consumer protection' around command-and-control regulations sounds more like political strategy in Venezuela than how policy should be made in the United States."

And John Ensign, the senior Republican on the Senate panel that writes telecommunications laws, said on Tuesday that "the FCC should abandon its misguided attempt" to regulate broadband providers.

No doubt some of the more shrill advocacy groups will paint opposition to the FCC's plans as arising from politicians who have been bought and sold by telecommunications companies. Another way to look at this week's outpouring of criticism, though, is that it reveals the chasm between progressive Netroots blogs and the people who actually hold power in Washington, D.C.

Still, dismissing the pro-Net neutrality crowd, which also includes a large number of Silicon Valley firms, would be premature.

On Tuesday, Google launched a broad effort to demonstrate how important it is to the nation's economy--and, by extension, how seriously its lobbying efforts should be taken.

While the title of the online report is "Google's Economic Impact 2009," it could well have been called "Google's Political Impact 2010." If Nevada Sen. Harry Reid is wavering before a key vote, it might be handy for the company's lobbyists to be able to show (PDF) that Google counts 17,000 Nevada advertisers and publishers as partners, and generated $509 million in economic activity for the Silver State last year.

Then again, Google has only about 12,000 employees in the country, almost all concentrated in California. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast collectively employ about 600,000 people in the U.S. If Congress counts potential votes instead of potential economic impact, aggressive Net neutrality rules will be about as likely to happen as a balanced federal budget.

Disclaimer: Declan McCullagh is married to a Google employee.