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With GOP gains, what next for net neutrality at FCC?

Some net neutrality backers question if the FCC will still move forward with new rules

By , IDG News Service
November 04, 2010 04:51 PM ET

IDG News Service - Republican gains in Congress with Tuesday's elections put a controversial and largely partisan debate over proposed network neutrality rules back in the hands of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, but some backers of new rules have their doubts about the agency's willingness to move forward.

The Republican takeover of the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives -- with many new lawmakers fiercely antiregulation -- likely signals an end to serious attempts to pass net neutrality legislation prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web traffic. But the FCC, where Democrats still hold a 3-2 majority, has an open proceeding soliciting comments on whether to adopt net neutrality rules.

But what will the FCC do? With Democratic majorities in Congress and the FCC over the past two years -- and support from President Barack Obama -- the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking in October 2009, but has not moved past the comment-seeking stage.

An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment on where the agency was headed with net neutrality following Tuesday's elections.

"The ball is clearly in the FCC's court now," said Art Brodsky, communications director for Public Knowledge, a digital rights group supporting new net neutrality rules. "[FCC Chairman Julius] Genachowski won't get any help from Congress. He has to do it, or it won't get done. Will he? I'm not optimistic based on past performance, but I hold out some small hope."

The new Republican majority in the House will likely hit the FCC with a series of hearings and information requests, predicted Brodsky and Joel Kelsey, political advisor to Free Press, a media reform group that supports new net neutrality rules.

Despite an antiregulation message from many newly elected Republicans, Free Press and other net neutrality supporters have long argued that new rules would preserve the way the Internet has always operated. A Supreme Court ruling and an FCC policy decision in 2005, combined with an appeals court ruling earlier this year on the FCC's authority to enforce informal net neutrality principles, have led to questions about the future of the so-called open Internet.

"You're not talking about applying new, onerous regulations on companies and asking them to comply with a bunch of red tape," Kelsey said. "You're essentially preserving the status quo."

But the new Republican lawmakers aren't likely to see the issue the way Free Press does. "Will they sacrifice the policy on the alter of politics?" Kelsey said. "Maybe. That's our job at nonprofit public interest groups ... to explain that to newly elected members of Congress. That's also the job of the FCC -- if they're serious about standing behind what they've consistently said is good policy, then they're going to have to fight for it."

The FCC has the votes to move forward with the long-debated net neutrality rules, Kelsey added. "They're going to have to fight for an agenda they care about, or decide they don't care about it," he said.

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