Net neutrality supporters question Genachowski plan

Dozens of groups calling for rules say that the proposal up for a vote Dec. 21 is too weak

Dozens of groups that have supported efforts at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to create network neutrality rules have voiced opposition to a proposal from agency Chairman Julius Genachowski in recent days.

With the commission scheduled to vote on Genachowski's proposal Dec. 21, many supporters of net neutrality rules have criticized the plan, saying it doesn't provide strong enough protections for Internet users. The groups have raised several concerns, with many saying Genachowski's plan provides weaker protections for mobile broadband users than it does for wired users.

In a Tuesday letter to the FCC, the American Library Association (ALA), the Association of Research Libraries and Educause raised several concerns about Genachowki's plan. The groups "fear that this form of proposed net neutrality is not true net neutrality," Corey Williams, associate director for the ALA's Office of Government Relations, said in a statement.

The rules prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web traffic should apply to providers serving libraries and other institutions, not just consumer retail services, as the proposal suggests, the groups said. In addition, the proposal should explicitly prohibit paid prioritization, and it should drop language that says net neutrality protections should be limited to lawful traffic, the groups said.

"Broadband operators should not be given absolute discretion to block traffic based on their own private determination that it is unlawful," the groups said in a press release. "It is inconsistent with core First Amendment values to allow broadband operators to impose prior restraints on Internet speakers without the benefit of a prior judicial determination or other adequate due process."

With the FCC's two Republican members likely to vote against the net neutrality proposal, many groups are asking Michael Copps, one of the commission's three Democrats, to push for changes to the Genachowski plan. Copps has questioned whether the FCC has the legal authority to create net neutrality rules without reclassifying broadband as a regulated, common-carrier service.

Also on Tuesday, several groups associated with the Media Action Grassroots Network, a human rights and antipoverty coalition, called on the FCC to include the same level of protections for mobile broadband users in net neutrality rules.

The new concerns over the proposal follow a letter sent Friday to the FCC by more than 80 groups and businesses, many of them strong supporters of net neutrality rules.

"We are writing to urge you to adopt enforceable rules that represent real network neutrality," said the letter, signed by leaders of Free Press, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project and other groups.

The 80-plus groups and businesses called on the FCC to prohibit paid prioritization of Web content, enact "full" net neutrality rules for mobile broadband, and close what they called some loopholes for broadband carriers to avoid net neutrality rules. The FCC should not allow broadband providers to offer specialized services exempt from the rules that mimic the functionality of the open Internet, the groups said.

"If the current [proposal] is adopted without substantial changes, Internet service providers will be free to engage in a number of practices that harm consumers, stifle innovation and threaten to carve up the Internet in irreversible ways," the letter said.

Meanwhile, an unusual coalition of musicians and church groups have called on broadband providers AT&T, Verizon Communications, Comcast and CenturyLink to allow their shareholders to vote on net neutrality. Led by Open MIC, a nonprofit pushing for media reform, and Trillium Asset Management, an independent investment firm, the groups have asked the four providers to allow shareholder votes on whether wireless networks should abide by net neutrality rules.

Among the supporters of the Open MIC effort are Mike D of the rap group the Beastie Boys, Mike Mills of the rock group R.E.M., and the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica of Atchison, Kansas.

Genachowki's plan has won some support. Comcast has expressed support for the plan, even though the company won a lawsuit challenging the FCC's efforts to act on informal net neutrality principles.

The Consumer Electronics Association, Sprint Nextel and several other groups have also praised the proposal, although some congressional Republicans and conservative groups have criticized Genachowski for pushing forward with the rules without congressional action.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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