WASHINGTON, November 25, 2009 - The rhetoric surrounding whether the Federal Communications Commission should move forward with rules to regulate internet access to support the principle of network neutrality took on new legs this week when a government official – a former top policy official at Google – conflated net neutrality, free speech and anti-government censorship in the same discussion.
It comes at a time that the FCC has already moved away from the controversial term “network neutrality” to focus instead on the importance of ensuring that an “open internet” exists going forward.
Still, the term “network neutrality” or “Net neutrality” continues to used interchangeably with the phrase “open internet” by some administration officials.
President Obama highlighted “open internet” during his recent trip to China. Last week Obama’s Deputy Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin and Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, addressed during a conference last week “how an open Internet, or so-called net neutrality, underlies free speech on the Web” and how, “Without it, censorship can occur.”
McLaughlin was former head of global public policy for Google, which says that it supports Net neutrality.
In his campaign, Obama supported network neutrality. Generally, the term seems to rule out possibility that broadband providers may charge differential rates for preferred business customers.
While the FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski considers rules to support network neutrality, McLaughlin drove the nail in hard during the speech at a conference sponsored by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln law school.
“If it bothers you that the China government does it, it should bother you when your cable company does it,” McLaughlin said.
Following McLaughlin’s comments, AT&T went on the counter-charge.
Jim Cicconi, the top lobbyist with AT&T, a company that stands on the other side of the fence on the net neutrality issue, was not happy.
"It is deeply disturbing when someone in a position of authority, like Mr. McLaughlin, is so intent on advancing his argument for regulation that he equates the outright censorship decisions of a communist government to the network congestion decisions of an American [internet service provider]," AT&T lobbyist Jim Cicconi said in an e-mailed statement. "There is no valid comparison, and it's frankly an affront to suggest otherwise."
"Mr. McLaughlin's statements are ill-considered and inflammatory,” Cicconi continued. “They describe a supposed threat to free speech by ISPs that simply does not exist, and seem designed to manufacture a 'crisis' in order to justify regulations that could damage investment and jobs,” he wrote.
In turn, Cicconi’s comments irked the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which said that it supported “the President and his administration are right to proclaim the importance of an open, uncensored Internet and to resist efforts to allow countries or dominant companies to manage or censor the Internet.”
CCIA also tied net neutrality into the argument against government censorship.
“CCIA has a history of opposing government censorship whether it happens in China, Iran or anywhere else in the world and has long supported net neutrality to ensure that Internet Access Providers do not restrict the public’s access to all applications, services and content,” the tech association said.
“It’s no surprise that AT&T and China had a similar response to the call for freedom and openness on the Internet. Restricting access to content, information and speech, whether for government censorship purposes or to protect excessive revenue streams, is an affront to all those who value free speech,” said Ed Black, president of CCIA.
“The juxtaposition of these free speech issues – Internet censorship and net neutrality – pulls away the layer of confusion about net neutrality that opponents have hidden behind for years,” said Black.
“What probably further concerns AT&T about linking Net neutrality to internet censorship is it hits too close to home. There is a real danger ISPs will use the scarcity of connectivity options and long-term contracts locking in customers as a means of control to favor one speaker or competitor over another on the Internet,” said Black.
The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy also weighed into the controversy. "A key reason the Internet has been such a success is because it is the most open network in history," the office said in a statement. "Mr. McLaughlin was simply reiterating the Administration's consistent support for the importance of an open Internet – both at home and abroad."