Feds seek middle ground in Net neutrality feud

FTC officials say they're trying to get past nightmare scenarios described by fans and foes and may pursue a compromise plan.
Written by Anne Broache, Contributor
WASHINGTON--Federal consumer protection officials on Tuesday indicated they're not ready to side with fans or foes of contentious Net neutrality regulations and said a middle-ground approach may be preferable.

Speaking on the first day of a workshop on broadband competition, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras and Commissioner Jon Leibowitz both spoke of the need to break through what they portrayed as extreme rhetoric lobbed by both sides of the issue before making any policy decisions.

"Frankly I was a little surprised by the lack of constructive public debate," Majoras said. "What I found were too many sound bites, too much talking past each other."

Leibowitz, who spoke just after lunch, also issued a half-joking slap on the wrist to participants in a morning panel discussion, which included a number of testy exchanges over the merits and drawbacks of Net neutrality regulations--and some heckling from audience members. During that segment, a Cisco Systems executive and Georgetown University professor decried such rules, while representatives from the Internet phone company Skype and consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge trumpeted their necessity.

"It seems to me that each side listens to the other side sort of just enough to mock it."
--Federal Trade Commissioner Jon Leibowitz

"It seems to me that each side listens to the other side sort of just enough to mock it," Leibowitz said. "In order for us to move the debate forward, we need to listen respectfully."

Net neutrality, as defined by proponents of regulations, is the idea that network operators should not be allowed to discriminate against or prioritize any content or services that travel on their pipes. (Opponents of regulations maintain it's an amorphous concept that defies definition.)

Internet content and e-commerce companies like Google and Amazon.com, allied with a broad coalition of consumer groups, have mounted a campaign to pass such regulations. They argue strict rules are necessary to prevent network operators from squeezing out consumers or companies that can't afford to pay extra to get into the so-called "fast lane."

"Two graduate students in a dorm room would not have been able to create this service, if the first thing they had to do was hire an army of lawyers and try to reach carriage agreements with providers around the world," Google policy counsel Alan Davidson said during one of the afternoon's panel discussions.

But opponents of the regulations, including major telephone and cable companies and network hardware manufacturers, continued to argue such regulations would stifle their ability to explore new ways of financing infrastructure build-outs.

"Regulation is not costless," Bob Pepper, Cisco's senior managing director for global advanced technology, said on a morning panel. "Network facilities are extremely expensive to construct."

Airing those disparate views was the purpose of the FTC's forum, which is slated to continue on Wednesday and to feature some three dozen speakers over the two days from industry, interest groups and academia. After vetting comments from those panelists and the public, an FTC task force focused on Internet access plans to issue a report about its conclusions on the direction broadband policy should be headed.

Leibowitz said he hasn't yet reached any conclusions on that front. "Many of us are looking for a third way," he said.

He called the debate over Net neutrality regulations a "battle of dystopian worlds" and suggested both sides may be exaggerating the consequences of failure to heed their respective views.

"There should be room for broadband providers to compete in the way they want, and there should be incentives for them to innovate," he said. "Some restriction on their ability to charge for tiered access may be important."

Leibowitz suggested a good jumping-off point for policy formulations may lie in concessions made by AT&T to persuade Democratic regulators to sign off on its merger with BellSouth. AT&T agreed not to "not to provide or to sell to Internet content, application or service providers, including those affiliated with AT&T/BellSouth, any service that privileges, degrades or prioritizes any packet transmitted over AT&T/BellSouth's wireline broadband Internet access service based on its source, ownership or destination."

Majoras, on the other hand, has previously voiced resistance to enacting the sort of Net neutrality regulations sought by Internet companies.

As the FTC ponders future actions, Majoras' attitude toward the Internet is "to not screw it up," she said Tuesday. In her view, that means avoiding new regulations whenever possible, particularly when "we're not seeing evidence of consumer harm."

Regardless of how the regulatory debate shakes out, the FTC will continue attempting to play a central role in policing complaints about consumer protection violations, including anticompetitive practices, both commissioners said.

And perhaps along the way, Leibowitz said, policymakers can broker a compromise that, "even if it doesn't make every interest group happy," does "benefit consumers and doesn't fulfill anyone's worst fears of misery and wretchedness."

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