The FCC’s plans for regulating the Internet through “neutrality” regulation—once considered on a fast track—was sidetracked once again yesterday as the agency announced a new round of public comments on possible regulation. It is one more twist in the drama that net neutrality has become, at least for those who see administrative procedure as exciting.
It’s a welcome twist, affording an opportunity to more fully consider some key dangers of regulation. At the same time, the delay underscores the difficulty that regulation supporters face in putting together a plan for controlling the Internet.
The agency had been expected to act this month to reclassify broadband Internet service as a “telecommunications” service, allowing it to regulate the industry. But that was before Google and Verizon—arguably the leading industry supporter and opponent, respectively, of neutrality—announced a compromise plan. The plan would allow for some regulation of Internet service providers but specifically exempt wireless service and “managed” services (such as Internet-based video services and phone services) from the rules.
The plan actually looked a lot like the FCC’s original outline for regulation. Nevertheless, the proposal was attacked by many hard-core supporters of regulation, such as Free Press and MoveOn.org, for not going far enough. In their view, Google had sold out. “Google is evil” (mocking Google’s corporate motto “Don’t be evil”) became a mantra, repeated by these groups and on left-wing blogs throughout the cybersphere.
Faced with this growing civil war between Google and its former allies in the pro-regulation camp, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski had little choice but to step back.
This does not mean Genachowski is giving up on regulation (despite scattered reports to the contrary). The specific questions to be addressed in the new round of comments—whether to impose mandates on highly competitive wireless industry and on investment-intensive managed services—are of course important. But they concern only how far regulation should go, not whether it should go. A market-based approach, apparently, is still not an option.
But the delay does underscore the problem faced by the chairman in getting the rules adopted. With the hard left insisting on an extreme version of regulation, it will be difficult for Genachowski to assemble a winning coalition for any regulatory plan. The end result may be no new regulation at all.
That’s a policy failure we could live with.