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Republican manifesto calls for internet freedom but no net neutrality

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The Republican Party has decided on its official platform for the coming presidential election, and where tech is concerned, it's running on a ticket of reforming the FCC, dumping net neutrality, and selling off wireless spectrum as fast as it can find it.

"The internet has unleashed innovation, enabled growth, and inspired freedom more rapidly and extensively than any other technological advance in human history," the platform document reads. "Its independence is its power. The internet offers a communications system uniquely free from government intervention."

In line with GOP policy, the document rejects the notion of net neutrality, favoring instead companies regulating themselves. When it comes down to protecting personal information and sharing it with third parties, "the only way to safeguard or improve these systems is through the private sector," it states.

Reform of the FCC is also cited as a key goal, should President Romney step across the White House threshold this coming January. The GOP accuses the FCC of trying "to micromanage telecom as if it were a railroad network" with net neutrality rules. Sticking with the railways theme, it points out that the FCC takes some of its power from the Interstate Commerce Commission, set up in 1887 to regulate the railway industry that at the time was the lifeblood of the US.

It's an odd example to highlight, since the ICC was set up to stop price gouging on certain rail routes, where companies would charge vastly inflated prices for use of their tracks in some locales. This might sound very familiar to some people struggling to find a competitive broadband or mobile service in the US.

As part of their proposed FCC reorganization, the Republicans want an immediate audit of all the wireless spectrum currently available and will examine how to sell it off. The platform document accuses Obama of having made no progress with spectrum sales and offering no incentives for investment.

While it's true that the Obama administration has been somewhat tardy in this area, taking well over two years to come up with a broadband and spectrum plan, there has been a fair amount of progress, too.

The FCC is desperate to get more spectrum out there and is proposing a series of voluntary incentive auctions, whereby existing spectrum holders can license part of their spectrum allowance to third-parties in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Obama signed off on the release of 500MHz of spectrum for the auctions back in 2010, but since then any moves in the area have been stalled by Congress.

The Republican platform indicates a more slash-and-burn approach. "We will remove regulatory barriers that protect outdated technologies," it states, which looks to mean the 300MHz of spectrum currently allocated to, and underused by, the broadcast TV industry.

On extending broadband, the document accused the current administration of failing to extend broadband coverage, despite spending $7.2bn for no benefit. The GOP plans to set up public/private partnerships to ensure remote areas get away from their dial-up modems.

Around 19 per cent of the US doesn’t have broadband, according to the latest FCC data, and this rises to a quarter of users in some rural areas of tribal reservations. While there has been an increase in the overall number of those with access to broadband, thanks to stimulus funds, the government has been hoist by its own petard, since it raised the limits of what could be considered a broadband service, from 1Mbps to 4Mbps – making the Republican claim technically correct.

For those who fear the UN trying to take control of internet governance from ICANN through its proxy, the International Telecommunications Union, the GOP said it would block any such moves, in line with the current policy of the Obama administration. The ITU proposals will be discussed at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in December.

"We will resist any effort to shift control away from the successful multi-stakeholder approach of Internet governance and toward governance by international or other intergovernmental organizations," the platform states.

Finally, the Republicans want to beef up the protections for intellectual property holders in the US and promise “punitive measures will be imposed on foreign firms that misappropriate American technology and intellectual property.” This has bought a warm response from the entertainment industry.

"I agree wholeheartedly with my friends in the Republican Party that we must protect the free flow of information on the internet while also protecting American innovators," said Chris Dodd, chairman of the MPAA. "It is imperative to our national economy and our national identity that we protect an internet that works for everyone."

There's been no official rebuttal of the Republican platform from Democrats and the party will be finalizing its own proposals next week. But in a Reddit chat session on Wednesday, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to net neutrality.

"Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too," he wrote. "We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody –- from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although there will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won't stray from that principle – and it will be reflected in the platform." ®

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