FCC draws fire over talks with Internet, telecom giants on 'net neutrality'

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010

Thwarted in his campaign to set government control over consumer access to the Internet, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has been trying to salvage his efforts by negotiating directly with a handful of the biggest Web firms and network service providers.

His goal is for those firms to put aside their differences on how Internet service providers control content on their networks and agree on legislation that Genachowski can present to Congress.

But critics say that by handpicking Google, AT&T, Verizon and Skype for seven closed-door meetings that continue this week at the FCC, Genachowski could be determining the future of how consumers access the Web in a manner more favorable to those businesses.

Massive corporate interests are at stake as the firms and the agency discuss so-called net neutrality provisions, or regulations that would prevent Internet providers from blocking or slowing access to Web sites. The talks could determine, for instance, whether Verizon could provide YouTube online video with better resolution than competitor Netflix, or whether Google and Skype have to pay extra to get their online voice services onto AT&T broadband networks.

"These big companies can make deals for themselves, but they are leaving out the rest of us," said Susan Crawford, a communications law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

Wider discussions

Genachowski's chief of staff, Eddie Lazarus, has been running the meetings and said he has also talked to dozens of consumer groups, start-ups, venture capitalists and smaller network operators. Those discussions have taken place outside the hours-long sessions that continue this week with officials from Google, Skype, AT&T, Verizon and a cable trade association and coalition advocating Genachowski's net neutrality rules.

"That one room is not privileged, in my view. There have been dozens of stakeholder discussions with varied interests who are all important to this process," Lazarus said.

Free Press, Public Knowledge, Amazon.com and Sony Electronics are among parties represented by the Open Internet Coalition, which has a place at the meetings. Cable firms are also represented by a trade group, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

"I can't presume to speak for all of them on any given issue," said Markham Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition, which also represents Google. "We try to be a consensus-based coalition, but the challenge is that there is a diversity of points of view on any given issue when you get to very specific points."

Matt Polka, president of American Cable Association, a group that represents smaller cable broadband operators, said he agrees with the National Cable and Telecommunications Association that the FCC shouldn't pursue open-Internet rules. But, he said, "you have to hope that the interests of smaller rural providers are also being represented in these discussions and not just the biggest cable firms."

Analysts said agreements made between those parties could encourage Congress to introduce legislation as the FCC grapples with questions over its ability to regulate broadband providers.

Wireless partners Google and Verizon are close to announcing an agreement on ground rules that they hope to hold as an example of successful self-regulation, according to sources familiar with those negotiations. The firms are expected to announce a deal soon that would allow Verizon to offer more room on its networks to content providers that pay more. But any promises regarding open-Internet access wouldn't apply to mobile phones, sources close to the companies said.

Verizon said in a statement that it will continue to participate in FCC talks. Google did not respond to requests for comment. The two firms have stood on opposite ends of the net neutrality debate but have partnered on Android phones, based on Google's operating system and applications. In recent months, Verizon chief executive Ivan Seidenberg and Google chief Eric Schmidt have announced in op-eds and speeches that they are finding "common ground" in the debate.

The FCC chief's goal

Such an agreement could frame discussion on legislation in Congress. And it would enable Genachowski to address his biggest policy goal -- open Internet access -- without having to follow through on a separate, controversial proposal to redefine broadband access providers as telecommunications services. That promise of open-Internet rules was touted by President Obama during his campaign but was derailed by a federal court decision that questioned the FCC's authority over broadband. And amid growing opposition in Congress, the FCC has sought to find a way out by asserting its authority to regulate broadband.

"These matters clearly are important to both network and apps providers, and it remains to be seen whether the difference can be overcome," said Paul Gallant, an analyst at Concept Capital. "If they are not, Chairman Genachowski is expected to move toward a reclassification ruling that would be negative for cable, telcos and possibly telecom equipment suppliers."

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