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Why net neutrality hasn't always been a partisan issue

With the one-year anniversary of the FCC's landmark decision to designate Internet providers as common carriers, Republican lawmakers and regulators blasted the rules as burdensome to small companies. A look back at a former commissioner's "four Internet freedoms" from 2004 shows the issue hasn't always been partisan, but it's often been divisive.

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    Federal Communication Commission (FCC) ChairmanTom Wheeler, center, joins hands with FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, left, and Jessica Rosenworcel, before the start of their open hearing in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. The FCC's 3-2 decision in favor of net neutrality one year ago has become a partisan issue. But former commissioner Michael Powell's effort to create four "Internet freedoms" in 2004 was less divisive, though they attracted less attention beyond policymakers.
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On Friday, the one-year anniversary of the Federal Communications Commission’s 3-2 vote in favor of net neutrality, including the controversial decision to treat Internet providers as “common carriers” sparked a variety of responses, at times divided along partisan lines.

In recent years, net neutrality regulations — which bar Internet providers from blocking or slowing down traffic online or directing users to particular sites — have become a more overtly political issue that often pits Democratic proponents against Republican opponents.

“On that wintry Thursday last year, Net Neutrality supporters emerged from the FCC to celebrate a stunning triumph,” wrote Timothy Karr, the senior director of strategy at the consumer advocacy group Free Press, in an essay for BillMoyers.com. "Our gain was a rare defeat for the cabal of powerful companies — including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon — that too often dictate communications policy to our elected officials."

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In a speech at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, Ajit Pai, one of two Republican FCC commissioners who voted against the proposal, blasted the rules as “the product of raw political power” by the Obama administration.

“One year ago today, the FCC decided to join together the 21st century Internet with 20th century legislation,” he said, in a reference to the origins of Title II of the Communications Act, which dates to 1934. “None of this was necessary – for 20 years, America stood at the forefront of the digital economy."

Noting that cable companies had filed a third legal challenge against the agency in less than a decade, he said, “this has been a gift to the American legal profession, but for most consumers, it’s been a dud.”

Several GOP lawmakers also responded to the anniversary with a bill to repeal the rules, writing simply that the bill ensures the FCC’s regulations “would have no force or effect.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who supported the bill has even discussed the once-obscure policy issue on the campaign trail, dubbing net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet” in 2014.

But a look back at media reports on the issue over more than a decade shows that this issue hasn’t always been as nakedly partisan, though it’s arguably long been divisive.

More than a decade ago, a proposal by former FCC head Michael Powell that is sometimes seen as an early version of net neutrality barely merited a mention when Mr. Powell, a Republican, left the commission in 2005. 

The proposal, unveiled in a speech in Boulder, Colo., in 2004, called for four “Internet freedoms” for consumers: the ability to access content freely, to use a variety of Internet applications without interference, to add “personal devices” to a users’ network, and to obtain information about their service plans.

Instead, media accounts of his departure point to Powell’s role in the FCC’s “indecency crusade” following Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Superbowl, and to his focus on maintaining a free market among cable and phone providers, arguing that came at consumers’ expense.

“The 41-year-old Republican, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, was also seen by critics as a single-minded deregulator whose legacy will mean less competition and higher consumer prices,” noted USA Today in 2005.

Since his 2004 proposal, Powell who is now head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, has often differentiated his proposals from the abstract idea of “net neutrality.”

“The open Internet is a good thing,” he said at a conference in 2006 at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York, the Hollywood Reporter noted. “But ‘net neutrality’ is an invitation to draw government into the Internet in a much bigger way than people have anticipated."

Companies also appeared to support Powell’s Internet freedoms, with one executive saying the principles could transcend partisan differences.

“Every carrier came out and said, 'Those are great; we agree with those principles.' And I think if where this ends up is through the Congress or through the FCC, those principles are codified, are made rules,” Steve Davis, the senior vice president of public policy and government relations at Qwest Communications, said at a 2010 panel hosted by the Denver Post.

Mr. Davis, who is now in a similar role at the Internet provider CenturyLink, which acquired Qwest, argued then that if congressional action was required, the FCC should be able to make decisions based on the four freedoms.

“I think that will provide the protections that customers want, that companies want, and that the carriers want,” he said.

But last year, Powell pointed a finger back at proponents of net neutrality regulations such as Mr. Karr’s organization, Free Press, arguing that they promoted a “myth” that cable companies were setting up “tolls” that blocked users’ from accessing particular sites online.

“A huge element that led to this decision was a well-orchestrated, dynamic movement, launched, housed and managed on the Internet, that created a myth that something was happening that wasn't actually happening,” he told industry magazine FierceCable in 2015. “I think that got a lot of public traction, and I think it became partisan."

Advocates for the regulations argue they have had a key benefit for consumers: curbing disputes between content providers such as Netflix and Internet providers, who often demanded the content-producing companies pay to have access to consumers’ broadband connections.

These disputes often lasted for months, causing disruptions and slower service for many users.

In its rules, the FCC didn’t ban payments – made as part of so-called interconnection agreements – outright, but now allows complaints to be brought against Internet providers that make particularly large payment demands.

But both sides agree that some aspects of the net neutrality regulations still remain in limbo. Mr. Pai, the FCC Commissioner, singled out his colleagues, saying agency chairman Tom Wheeler had provided mixed messages about services such as T-Mobile’s BingeOn.

The service provides unlimited streaming video to users that doesn’t count against their data plan – a practice known as zero rating.

But consumer watchdog groups have alleged that the service works by reducing the quality – or throttling – of videos, something that would be prohibited by the FCC’s net neutrality rules.

Consumer groups also pointed to a degree of uncertainty, citing the upcoming decision on net neutrality currently pending before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We are in this limbo while we're waiting for the court to decide,” Craig Aaron, Free Press’s chief executive, told Ars Technica, noting the rise of zero rating services.

It’s not yet clear whether “the FCC is going to be willing to step up and say what they can do and what they can't,” he added.

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