Academics, Activists Talk Network Neutrality At FCC Workshop

Bob Corn-Revere, Jack Balkin among those speaking

Veteran communications attorney Bob Corn-Revere faced off against a panel of network neutrality regulation fans at the FCC's first workshop on the effects of the FCC's proposed expansion and codification of network neutrality guidelines.

In effect it was seven against one as academics, network neutrality activists and independent content creators targeting minority audiences talked about the need for the regs to keep deep-pocketed industry gatekeepers from blocking speech or pricing it out of the reach of the next big innovation.

Corn-Revere said that, as far as he was concerned, there was more danger from government trying to regulate in the Internet space than from letting marketplace forces govern it, which is what he said had helped facilitate some of the vibrant speech represented by his fellow panelists.

As an example of the problems of government regulation of communication, he pointed to the long-standing prohibition on telcos delivering video services.

He said that imposing new regs would be working in the opposite directions of court decisions that viewed regulation as a threat to the open internet, particularly targeting perceived future harms. He said that the question now, as technology continues to change, is whether a hands-off approach or new regs would be better. He clearly sided with the former, but it was all hands on deck for the other side of the argument.

Hardly was heard a discouraging word among a chorus of proponents of network neutrality regulation who shared the workshop panel. He even briefly had to fight a fire alarm that appeared to go off in the background, though moderator Stuart Benjamin said he could have an extra 30 seconds if he needed it.

Yale Law School Professor Jack Balkin, said that the First Amendment is all about participation, which is the Internet's "gift to mankind." But he said that participation means little if you have to get permission. He said the net is a way to "route around network gatekeepers." Network neutrality regs, he argued, are necessary to preserve that gift of participation from private entities whose natural tendency is to favor their own business interests and shareholders.

He was seconded by Andrew Schwartzman of Media Access Project, who suggested the harms were neither perceived or future. He cited several examples, including Verizon blocking an anti-abortion message and Comcast impeding BitTorrent traffic among those examples. As to their only being a few examples, he said what is known is only the tip of the iceberg, that it will become increasingly difficult to uncover those instances, and that the "greatest danger" is from what blockages we have not known about and do not now know about.

Joining in support of net neutrality regs were Michele Combs of the Christian Coalition; Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit blog; Jonathan Moore, of minority-targeted online site Rowdy Orbit; Ruth Livier, writer and online content producer' and Garlin Gilchrist of the Center for Community Change.

Benjamin is the FCC's new, and newly controversial, Distinguished Scholar in residence. And while he was getting harsh criticism from one legislator on Capitol Hill Tuesday, he was being welcomed---it was his first day--by both Republican and Democratic members of the commission on hand for the workshop.