For the tech community, net neutrality is the byword for a free and open Internet. So the Federal Communication Committee's announcement that they would introduce regulations to protect net neutrality came as a welcome relief.
But response to the proposal as it stands has been far from unanimous praise. Initial excitement that the matter had been officially introduced at all was quickly subsumed by wariness over ambiguities in the proposal that seemed to allow broadband carriers to continue their old practices under the cover of a false openness.
Net neutrality is supposed to stop carriers from blocking content or for charging fees to speed up certain connections while slowing others. Without such regulation, the fear is that major cable companies would have the ability to make deals with specific sources of content and make it more difficult for the consumer to reach their competitors.
Some hail the proposal as a crucial move towards instating regulation. "I think this is an extremely important first step," Jed Katz, managing director at Javelin Venture Partners, said. "The alternative is not to take that first step."
Other tech groups joined in praising Commissioner Julius Genachowski for getting the proposal off the ground, while remaining reserved about its content "Knowing there'd be all this pushback from Republicans we have to at least applaud the FCC chairman for moving forward on this," said Cathy Sloan of the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA).
But some advocates for net neutrality are outraged at what they regard as a proposal so watered-down as to not even meet the original definition of the term. "The proposed rule is riddled with loopholes and falls far short of what's necessary," Josh Silver of the Free Press wrote.
While prohibiting the blockage of lawful content and enforcing transparency about network management, the proposal retains several components that seem less aligned with the FCC's original plans for net neutrality regulation.
The proposal relies on classifying broadband Internet access under Title I of the Communications Act as information services. This classification is the same legal authority that resulted in April's FCC loss to Comcast, under the justification that the FCC had overstepped their authority. Reclassification of broadband services under Title II as telecommunication services would give the FCC the authority to regulate the actions of broadband carriers, a possibility that met with opposition from the telecom giants when it was first proposed.
Genachowski's solution was a "Third Way," a hybrid move that would reclassify broadband as an information service but also limit the FCC's power. The proposal he outlined on Wednesday adheres not to his "Third Way," but to the Title I regulations that he himself called "a protracted, piecemeal approach to defending essential policy initiatives," back in May. Michael Copps, an FCC commissioner whose vote Genachowski will need to pass the proposal, is expected to give a speech tonight backing his preference for Title II regulation.
Further, the proposal allows for the possibility of usage-based pricing, a policy that opens up the possibility that companies with the means would be able to pay for prioritized access. It also classifies broadband Internet access separately from mobile wireless, so that no non-discrimination rule applies to wireless. "It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to say if you access it through your Internet standing in Times Square and if you access it from your desktop in SoHo you get another Internet," said Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge.
But the carriers seem to be cautiously satisfied with this version of net neutrality. AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner all praised the FCC for their handling of the situation. "We are pleased that the FCC appears to be embracing a compromise solution that is sensitive to the dynamics of investment in a difficult economy and appears to avoid over-regulation," AT&T said in a press release.
The proposal will be put to a vote on December 21, a reminder that despite the intensity of the debate thus far, net neutrality remains in its earliest stages. "They've been sitting on this for over a year," Sloan said. "Forward motion is certainly better than stalemate."