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Did Neutrality Survive the Great Stimulus Compromise?

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, February 13 2009

The answer: yep, kinda, and not really -- depending on your read of the situation. We have the final language of the bill, and Free Press policy director Ben Scott emails to say it's a combination of the House's language on abidance by the FCC's four principles on Internet openness and the Senate's draft on non-discrimination. But that's not, at least as far as I understand it, not exactly network neutrality.

First off, here's how the relevant section of Congress' compromise bill reads:

Concurrent with the issuance of the Request for Proposal for grant applications pursuant to this section, the Assistant Secretary [i.e., the head of NTIA] shall, in coordination with the [Federal Communications] Commission, publish the non-discrimination and network interconnection obligations that shall be contractual conditions of grants awarded under this section, including, at a minimum, adherence to the principles contained in the Commission's broadband policy statement (FCC 05-15, adopted August 5, 2005).

Let me attempt a translation. Anyone receiving broadband grant money (about $7 billion in the final bill) will be governed by a set of regulations drafted by both NTIA and Julius Genachowski's FCC. And the commission's four principles on Internet openness adopted in 2005 will be a floor, not a ceiling.

What do those principles say? In short, that consumers should be able to access what they want online, run the applications they want, connect what they want to the network, and enjoy competition amongst broadband providers.

But one reading of the principles, is that they network operators are still free to discriminate against certain kinds of traffic, which would violate a strong definition of net neutrality.

That said, Genachowski et al could decide to now draft strict, strict neutrality regulations. And the fact that the openness provisions survived the House, Senate, and conference committee largely intact are perhaps a sign that telecom lobbyists don't -- and won't -- have the power they once had to oppose them.

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