House Democrats punt on net neutrality

Jackson said he doesn’t expect Congress to take up net neutrality in the months after the November election, adding that the results of the Nov. 2 midterm election won’t change where net neutrality ranks on Congress’s priority list.

“One party or another gaining or maintaining majorities” won’t kill or revive net neutrality, he said. “Everyone sees now that you can’t wave a magic wand and make the problems go away. … There is a whole thicket of issues you have to deal with,” such as regulation of wired and wireless networks, and whether rules for the two should differ.

Net neutrality was the Obama administration’s top campaign pledge to the technology industry and a major priority of the current FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, a key architect of Obama’s technology platform. But frustration is growing—particularly among public interest groups—as the debate has dragged on over the past year without resolution either at the FCC or in Congress.

Waxman’s proposal, in part, fell victim to today’s political climate, with Republicans hoping to rack up gains in the upcoming midterm elections apparently unwilling to help Democrats make progress on such a contentious issue.

With an anti-government, anti-regulation sentiment sweeping the nation—and boosting Tea Party candidates—Republicans also were reluctant to support a proposal that opponents equate to regulating the internet.

Yet, in what would have been a big victory for the phone and cable companies, Waxman’s proposal would have headed off an effort by Genachowski to redefine broadband as a telecommunications service subject to “common carrier” obligations to treat all traffic equally.

Jackson said his hopes for the Waxman bill were tempered while some campus technologists were enthused as net neutrality seemed to gain momentum in Congress over the past year. Legislators, he said, would need more time to work on the details of a comprehensive bill.

“I never thought it was a done deal, despite the enthusiasm early on,” he said. “There just wasn’t enough time. … To see this specific bill fall flat was not a big surprise, but the bill could have laid the foundation.”

The FCC has been trying to craft a new framework for regulating broadband since a federal appeals court in April threw out its current approach, which treats broadband as a lightly regulated “information service.” The agency had argued that this approach gave it ample jurisdiction to mandate net neutrality.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected that argument. It ruled that the agency had overstepped its authority when it ordered Comcast to stop blocking subscribers from using an online file-sharing service called BitTorrent to swap movies and other big files.

With Congress making no progress to resolve this issue, several public interest groups on Sept. 29 called on Genachowski to move ahead with his proposal to reclassify broadband as a telecom service.

“The FCC must act now to protect consumers by reinstating its authority over broadband,” Gigi Sohn, president of the public interest group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. “We expect the FCC to do so to carry out one of the fundamental promises of the Obama administration.”

(Editor’s note: For our view on why net neutrality is important for the future of education, see “Opinion: Corporate policy making would result in a net loss.”)

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