As they continue with their work crafting rules for Internet network management, communications regulators have heard an earful from ISPs, Web application and content providers and a host of industry-backed groups and consumer advocates about what, if any, role the government should play in enforcing net neutrality obligations.
The Federal Communications Commission had extended its deadline to Monday for reply comments regarding its open Internet rulemaking proceeding after a federal appeals court vacated its 2008 order punishing Comcast for throttling traffic on its broadband network.
Now, with all parties reporting, the FCC has a deeply polarized set of comments that variously challenge and endorse its legal authority to impose a net neutrality mandate.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the principal lobby for the cable industry, submitted a filing arguing against the "artificial distinction" between network providers and firms that deliver Internet services and content, describing each as cohabitants in the same ecosystem. By that reasoning, NCTA argued that the proposed rules, if enacted, would necessarily extend beyond ISPs to cover both Internet backbone providers such as Akamai and application players like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and other "principal gateways" to Web content.
"In its own comments, Google pretends not to recognize the role that its search engine plays in routing consumers to particular content and applications -- and in rendering other content and applications virtually invisible and unused," NCTA wrote in its filing. "Arguing that any rules should apply only to ISPs and not to any other Internet applications or services, it portrays itself as just another innovative 'over-the-top' content provider that should remain immune from regulation."
According to NCTA and numerous other like-minded groups, the FCC chairman's goal in prohibiting ISPs from brokering side deals with content and application providers for speedy delivery of their traffic would put the vibrant Internet economy in a vice grip of burdensome regulation, amounting to something just short of a death knell for innovation and investment.
On the other side, in the very exuberant net neutrality debate, the open Internet advocates turned out in full force.
Groups like the Open Internet Coalition, which counts Google, Facebook and numerous other Web firms and groups as members, called on the FCC to move swiftly to reclassify broadband as a so-called Title II service, a move that would seek to clarify it legal authority to regulate service providers.
For net neutrality advocates, that mission assumed a new urgency earlier this month when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the FCC lacked the authority to enforce the policy statement it used in the Comcast decision.
"Post-Comcast v. FCC, consumers lack any protection against violations of the Internet Policy Statement, or against discriminatory treatment of content or applications over broadband providers' networks," Markham Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition, said in a statement.
Still absorbing the latest round of comments and evaluating its legal position, the FCC has not set a timetable for putting the net neutrality rulemaking to a vote. A spokeswoman declined to comment for this report.
Google, the most prominent industry supporter of net neutrality rules, described the broadband services sector as a "failed market" in its filing, arguing that the FCC must exert its regulatory authority to guard against the anti-competitive behavior of the incumbent "duopoly" of cable and telecom providers.
"In particular, the FCC should not allow a handful of broadband network operators to utilize their unique market and network control over consumer access to the Internet in ways that harm users, impede competition or undermine the growth of Internet-based activities," Google said in its filing.