A New Year’s Resolution on Net Neutrality: Can Free Press and Public Knowledge Promote Peace?

Michael McCurry and Mark McKinnon, co-chairs of Arts+Labs, weigh in on network neutrality in a guest blog. Click here to read their Oct. 2009 guest blog.

While other longtime antagonists in Internet policy debates were seemingly harmonious at year’s end by finding common ground on net neutrality and other contentious issues, Free Press and Public Knowledge appear to be standing by resolutions of years past.   How else to explain the digs those two groups keep tossing at both the FCC and Internet Service Providers?

When the FCC provided a sneak preview of its national broadband plan in early December, Free Press and Public Knowledge had their parallel condemnations on the wires and into news rooms within hours.

Gigi Sohn, President and co-founder of Public Knowledge, said she was “disappointed” that the FCC was taking only “incremental steps,” and her Free Press counterpart, Ben Scott, said he saw “nothing in the plan … to rapidly advance American broadband networks” and asked why the Commission didn’t go after the “sacred cows.”

And, on the issue of net neutrality, the two groups sound more and more like bitter-enders stomping on peace feelers.  Amid an emerging search for “Open Internet” policies that will protect Internet users from misconduct while also enabling continued innovation by Internet participants, Free Press and Public Knowledge are marching out of step.

Consider these omens of peaceful resolutions:

* Verizon and Google, leaders of the opposing net neutrality camps, forged a ceasefire of sorts with a joint declaration that “we have found a number of basic concepts to agree on.”

Among other things, they agreed that “users should continue to have the final say about their web experience,” that policymakers should avoid “overly detailed rules,” and that broadband network providers should have the flexibility to manage their networks so long as they act consistently with customer preferences and “don’t unreasonably discriminate in ways that either harm users or are anti-competitive.”

* Paul Misener, Amazon.com’s vice president for global public policy, says he remains concerned about arbitrary prioritization that harms other users’ online experience, but also says that network operators should be able to manage their networks to keep them operating safely and need the freedom to explore new business models.

* And, most recently, AT&T, perhaps the most ardent opponent of the non-discrimination rules proposed by net neutrality advocates, publicly joined the search for consensus in a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

AT&T gave a figurative embrace in December to Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, a net neutrality advocate, by citing a recent letter to the Commission, in which she suggested that implementing Net Neutrality in the fashion the FCC envisions could potentially prevent new products and services.

AT&T said Sen. Snowe got it right recently when she said the goal of net neutrality should be to bar “unreasonable and anti-competitive discrimination that would adversely affect Internet users’ experience or choice.”

It may not be a peace treaty yet, but consensus seems to be forming around a more granular policy that protects Internet users from harm, but allows non-harmful services. Still, on December 16, Gigi Sohn branded the distinctions as “nonsense” and Ben Scott accused AT&T of “bait and switch.”

It looks like Public Knowledge and Free Press are determined to miss the peace party.  Here’s hoping they surprise us with a New Year’s Resolution to seek common ground in 2010.

McCurry is former White House press secretary to President Bill Clinton. McKinnon is a media advisor/strategist whose credits include the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain.

Arts + Labs is a coalition of studios, networks, computer companies, and others promoting online entertainment. Its partners include Viacom, NBC U,  AT&T, Verizon,  Microsoft and Jib Jab.