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FCC boss stumps for free and open internet

Comcast begs to differ - in court

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CES 2010 On Friday morning, Comcast asked a US court to strike down a 2008 Federal Communications Commission order to stop blocking subscribers' heavy use of its services, saying that the FCC had exceeded its authority. On Friday afternoon, during a casual interview at the Consumer Electronics Show, the response from the FCC chairman was: "No comment, but..."

Chairman Julius Genachowski seized the opportunity to reiterate the FCC's net-neutrality goals and reasoning to his interlocuter, Consumer Electronics Association president and CEO Gary Shapiro.

When Shapiro asked him his opinion of Comcast's argument that the FCC didn't have authority to dictate to them how to run their business - "There was simply no federal law to interpret, enforce, or apply against Comcast," were Comcast's words - Genachowski danced away from the question. "The litigation underscores for me the importance of developing sensible rules of the road around a free and open internet that people understand," he said, adding that "we'll obviously watch what happens with the court and act accordingly."

When Shapiro pressed him on his opinion of Comcast's argument, Genachowski begged off more directly. "I wasn't at the argument. I was working. I was walking the [CES] floor." But although he couldn't be drawn out about his thoughts on Comcast's filing, Genechowski had plenty to say about the importance of the "free and open" internet.

"The goal of preserving the special magic of the internet that we have remains the important thing," he said.

When asked if the internet should be controlled by what Shapiro referred to as "the people who own the pipes," or whether it should be open and available to every user on an equal basis, Genechowski was adamant. "Listen, we have benefited in this country enormously from this distribution medium that was open from its beginning, that has an open architecture built into it."

His reasoning for extending that openness has a business basis. "One of the healthy things that we're seeing - and I see it here, and with many of the people I meet with, and with what I see on the [CES] floor - [is that] more and more the idea that open platforms are good business is becoming conventional wisdom, and I think that's a very healthy thing."

Noting that there are heavyweight players on both sides, Shapiro asked Genachowski if he saw an end to the argument, or whether it would "go on forever."

As might have been expected from a political appointee, Genachowski's answer was an optimistic one. "I don't think it has to. The [FCC] staff has done its work here, running an open, data-driven process that really brings in the engineers, the business folks, the people who really understand the consumer perspective, from all over the landscape. I think that what they're finding is that the goals are more broadly shared than people think, and that the gaps between what people think are sensible rules are narrower than some people feared."

Returning to the "free and open" buzzphrase, he continued: "Our hope is that there is an outcome here that preserves a free and open internet and that accomplishes the reasons that we're in this game, which is to promote innovation, to promote investment, to protect the free flow of expression, and to preserve and indeed accelerate the kind of innovation, economic activity, and job creation that we've seen out of this platform for the last several decades, and that we need as a country to continue for the next several decades."

Thick bureaucratese, to be sure, but Genachowski's bottom line is clear: keep the internet free and open, or suffer the economic consequences.

But not at expense of competition. "There's no question that competition is a critical policy objective of the FCC. Competition, we believe - and our country believes - is the mother of invention, the mother of innovation. Promoting competition, ensuring competition, solves many, many problems."

He admitted, however, that it's not easy for innovation to occur in a confused landscape in which it's hard to understand the guidelines and parameters of, on the consumer side, billings and services, and on the business side, regulations, rules, and guidelines.

"We're thinking about ordinary consumers and the confusion that they often experience, and also CTOs and business folks at new companies, new entrepreneurs, new innovators who are trying to get on the platform, who, if they can have better information about the rules of the road...we'll see a healthier, faster-moving environment with the FCC less required to be involved."

Genachowski sees a day when the FCC can step back and let a transparent set of rules support both small and big businesses alike. The Commission will, however, be ready to act as "a backstop when there's conduct that's contrary to the goals that we have for the internet."

Such as when the FCC ruled against Comcast. How the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rules on Comcast's assertion that the FCC doesn't have the proper authority to tell it what to do will make a huge difference in Genachowski's chosen path to a free and open internet. ®

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