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FCC dubbed 'Ministry of Truth' over net neut rules

'Freedom is slavery' howls ideologue

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CES 2011 A senior telecommunications counsel to the House Energy and Commerce committee has blasted the Federal Communications Commission for laying down official net neutrality rules, comparing the FCC to Orwell's Ministry of Truth.

Neil Fried – a Republican adviser to ranking members of the Energy and Commerce committee, the driving force on technology issues in the US House of Representatives – pulled out the 1984 metaphors during a panel discussion on Thursday at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. "What struck me as I was reading it was it felt very much like I was in George Orwell's 1984, complete with doublethink and newspeak," Fried said of the FCC's order.

"It's the whole 'freedom is slavery' idea, right? To protect the internet, to keep the internet free, the government's gotta take over. Big Brother is gonna decide."

Just two weeks old, the FCC's order has quickly divided stakeholders into pro and con camps. At the Thursday CES session, those two opposing viewpoints were expressed in the most part in cordial and logical arguments. And then there was Fried.

AT&T's SVP for external and legislative affairs Jim Cicconi expressed reservations about the order – although he did praise the FCC for their "regulatory humilty" in not going too far. When asked for a yes-or-no answer as to whether he supported the order, however, he hedged. "We're comfortable with the order" he said.

Tom Tauke, Verizon EVP for public affairs, policy, and communication, was more succinct in his reply to the same question. "No," he said.

When asked if Verizon would sue over the legality of the order, Tauke also hedged. "I have a few rules by which I operate, one of which is when my boss gives a keynote speech in the morning, I try not to make news later in the day," he said.

But Tauke did leave the legal door wide open. "We are studying the order carefully to determine what course of action to take when the time comes, but I'm not in a position at this junction to say at this time what we may or may not do in a legal perpective relating to the order."

Such gentlemanly verbal petit fours were not on the menu of Neil Fried. He served up red meat. Fried – a former FCC attorney – came equipped with a prop: a copy of the FCC's order. Waving it, he asked the attendees: "How many people have read this thing?" Few hands were raised, so Fried seized the opportunity to explain what was in the document.

Cue Big Brother metaphor.

Speaking for his compatriots in the fight against the order, he continued: "The fear is, we don't want anyone to decide – right? – who has permission to innovate. Instead, we're going to go to the government to get the permission to innovate. Because ultimately, everybody – whether you're an edge provider or a broadband provider – is going to need to know: 'Is what I want to do reasonable?'"

Then back to Orwell: "And you're going to have to go to the Ministry of Truth" – a reference to the FCC – "to decide what's reasonable. It's very troubling."

Roger Sherman, Democratic chief counsel for communications and technology policy to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, took exception to the tone of Fried's remarks. "I think we're in for an extended period – maybe three of four months – of theater on this issue," he said.

"I took a class on George Orwell and 1984," he said. "I don't read [the order] that way. I don't see a Ministry of Truth. Some of the arguments you're hearing from Republicans about this is 'regulating the internet.' We think it's just the opposite: it's protecting the internet. It's said it's a threat to free speech. Again we think it's just the opposite. That it kills investment and jobs? No proof whatsoever that it does that."

Backing away from 1984, Fried explained the House Republicans' strategy for 2011. "I think you can count on, early in the year, one of the first telecom issues, one of the first technology issues, will be net neutrality. There'll be a series of hearings on everything from the substance to the authority and the process."

He then revealed specifics of the Republicans' plans. "Legislatively there's something called the Congressional Review Act, and the Congressional Review Act allows Congress to nullify any agncy decision with a simple majority in both chambers, and it's fillibuster-proof."

Fried also thinks that there's a better-than-even chance that such a joint resolution voiding the FCC order would pass. "Remember," he said, "we're going to have probably easily a majority [of votes] in the House, and very close to a majority of people opposed to this in the Senate. We only need, maybe, four or five Democrats to follow the Republicans, who are together on this."

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