FCC's Clyburn Pushes Back on Net Neutrality
Blogging the Beltway: Amid all-around criticism of new Internet rules, one of the agency's commissioners defends her decisions.
As one of five commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission -- and the first African-American woman to serve, by the way -- Mignon Clyburn hasn't exactly been winning new fans lately. Last week the commission's Internet regulatory rules went into effect, newly stirring criticism from net-neutrality advocates, who say that the guidelines don't go far enough, as well as from telecommunications companies and other opponents who argue that Internet regulation is government overreach that could create barriers to expanding broadband.
Designed to protect the current state of the Internet, the guidelines prohibit Internet service providers, such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, from blocking access or slowing down lawful online content, apps and services for users on home broadband connections -- actions that could give them a competitive advantage. The rules differ slightly for wireless providers, where the ban on blocking applies to lawful websites but not mobile-broadband app stores.
The new guidelines also require providers to be transparent with consumers about their activities such as roaming fees and usage caps. They do not, however, explicitly ban "paid prioritization," which allows carriers to charge an extra fee for faster service, instead leaving it up to the FCC to assess the issue on a case-by-case basis.
Clyburn previously expressed reservations about the strength of the rules when the FCC first announced them last year, but in an interview with The Root, she rather fiercely defended the final set of guidelines. With legal challenges expected to squeeze the FCC from both sides of the issue, Clyburn shared why, even though she "didn't necessarily embrace" all of it, she thinks the new rules are a monumental decision that will protect the little guy and keep the Internet open to all.
The Root: What does net neutrality mean to you? Can you sum up what you think it should be?
Mignon Clyburn: We took a bold stand last year as it relates to that proceeding. I call it the "open Internet" proceeding; I don't use the term "net neutrality." I jokingly say that's N-squared, and I'm not necessarily a math whiz, so I use the term "open Internet."
I feel that in order for Americans to be in touch with each other and take advantage of all of the opportunities we have domestically and internationally, there needs to be a framework for communication and transparency with your provider. There needs to be an assurance that you do not have degraded service if you choose one provider over another.
If you are an entrepreneur that wants to start up a business with online engagement, then you should have an engagement that is fair, transparent, robust and comparable to all of the citizens in this nation. We felt strongly that there needed to be a set of principles to protect not only the companies that do business in this space but the consumers who engage in this space.
The way we thought was best to do that was to set up a high-level set of rules that let everyone know what to expect as a consumer, and how to conduct your business as an Internet service provider. We know how essential it is to be connected and have as robust a service as possible. All of these things needed to be in place so that no matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter who you choose, if it's a provider that is in good standing and we're talking about information that is legal, then you will have unimpeded access to the network.
TR: Yet critics of those rules are concerned that they didn't place an explicit ban on paid prioritization, and some of the requirements don't apply to wireless services. Are you satisfied with this final result, given those loopholes?
MC: Wireless is treated differently. Many still view the wireless universe as a nascent, ever-evolving technology that's not as mature in the space as your wired experience. Also, the wireless space is considered more competitive, with more players in the market, more options and hence the need for fewer rules.
I didn't necessarily embrace all of this. I recognize that, especially in communities of color and some economically disadvantaged communities, wireless might be the only device you use to communicate and access the Internet. We were proponents of having close to parity as it relates to the open-Internet principles. We got something a little short of that, but by and large I think we got a pathway in those high-level rules that will ensure certainty and engagement.
If there are problems that people encounter, there's a clear pathway for this agency to hear those challenges. The great part of this is that when we put things in action, when we set forth these policies, there continue to be opportunities for engagement. Nobody has the exclusive on what is right, and what is right today might not be the best path a year from now. All of these high-level rules allow for the dexterity to change with the times.
TR: On the other hand, critics have also panned the rules as infringing on the rights of corporations and regulating a market that doesn't need "fixing." How do you respond to that argument?
MC: The fact of the matter is that there were complaints in the market. The fact of the matter is that even though numerically we might not have heard from hundreds and hundreds of companies, there were degradations in the market. If people were to double-check the record, there was a certain major company that did change their policies because it was found that there was a service that was not on par. [Editor's note: In 2007, Comcast blocked BitTorrent transfers by slowing down bandwidth. After catching heat, including an FCC ruling against it, the company stopped.]
One of the reasons why I am so passionate about what I do is that this is not just for the big guys who can come up [to Washington] and make their cases. It's for the small companies and individuals who cannot afford to come up and complain, who are not sophisticated enough to go on our docketing management system. They just either deal with it or go out of business.
If I did not ensure that those individuals, those small businesses that make the backbone of this nation, don't have a fair opportunity, don't have as good a chance to make it and have the same quality online experience as the bigger guys, then I would be doing less than my service to the public.
That is why I think it's important to have these rules, to ensure that even though they might not be able to equally compete, they can compete better. They don't have to have a storefront, or millions of dollars in advertising costs. If you have a good idea, if you have an affordable connection, and an affordable device -- and we've got a lot of programs that we're working on to ensure that all of those things happen -- we're saying that you, too, can realize your dreams, and this is the pathway forward.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.