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Net Neutrality: The Final Arguments (Finally)

Google does some last-minute lobbying on a middle-mile Internet issue that could cost it big money.


Activists on both sides of the nasty political fight over new rules for Internet lines suited up for one last skirmish Wednesday as Federal Communications Commission officials made final tweaks to a plan expected to be approved Thursday.

Irritated House Republicans held the latest in a series of hearings Wednesday morning to complain about FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal, which would re-regulate Internet lines under rules written for phone networks to give the FCC clear authority to be an Internet traffic cop.

A separate hearing — on whether the White House inappropriately influenced the plan — was shelved Wednesday morning after Wheeler refused to attend because he was busy overseeing last-minute negotiations.

The hearing followed an oft-used script. Republicans expressed disgust at the FCC’s proposal (the FCC vote Thursday “does not signal the end of this debate — it is just the beginning,” warned Republican House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan). Democrats defended their FCC counterparts (House members have “too much important work to do to have the same hearings over and over again,” said Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey). Three witnesses blasted the proposed rules. One witness defended them.

Rinse. Repeat.

Despite all of the political theater on Capitol Hill, the FCC’s three Democratic commissioners are still planning to approve the controversial proposal Thursday morning.

It has been a foregone conclusion for several months that tougher net neutrality rules will soon apply to U.S. broadband services.

Wheeler embraced President Obama’s November proposal for how to craft the rules, over loud, repeated protests from Internet providers and anti-regulation conservatives who distrust the FCC.

The agency’s two other Democratic members, Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, have little choice but to support the rules. They’d become Democratic party outcasts if they didn’t. Both women have supported strong net neutrality rules for years, although each has made efforts in recent weeks to tweak Wheeler’s proposal.

While the FCC’s two Republican members have been shooting out press releases and tweets about the “president’s Internet regulations,” staffers for the agency’s three Democrats have been ironing out some language in Wheeler’s draft in response to various concerns raised by net neutrality advocates.

One issue that has come up in Democratic negotiations is a concern about how the FCC might regulate middle-mile Internet connections. Wheeler has proposed covering so-called peering or interconnection agreements under net neutrality rules so large broadband providers like Comcast* or AT&T can’t charge prohibitively expensive prices.

Last week, Google and its allies raised new concerns about one part of this interconnection plan, however, because they’re worried that it might lead to some unintended consequences. Some language in the proposal was written specifically to address concerns raised by a federal appeals court and essentially says the agency would have authority over broadband service to Internet content companies, or “broadband subscriber access services.”

Google is worried that the FCC is about to inadvertently create a system where “some [Internet service providers], particularly abroad” can tax U.S.-based content providers like Google or Facebook for traffic they send to international users under a “sender pays” model, according to a Google filing. Some European telecoms have been keen to impose new fees on U.S. Internet companies.

It’s an issue that came up three years ago when a United Nations committee was considering Internet governance proposals. U.S. Internet giants and diplomats successfully killed that proposal.

In calls with senior aides to all three Democratic commissioners on February 19, former FCC general counsel Austin Schlick (now a senior Google attorney) said the agency should not attempt to classify a “service that broadband providers make available to ‘edge providers,'” because “this supposed additional service does not exist.”

Clyburn has raised the Google worries in negotiations, according to two sources close to the process, although another person said senior Democratic FCC officials had already been looking at removing the language in question because it seemed redundant. An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment.

*Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

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