Al Franken is not happy with the Federal Communications Commission.
The Minnesota senator, an outspoken liberal, says the FCC is failing to protect equality of access to the Internet.
"As a source of innovation, an engine of our economy, and a forum for our political discourse, the Internet can only work if it's a truly level playing field," Franken wrote at Reader Supported News. "Small businesses should have the same ability to reach customers as powerful corporations. A blogger should have the same ability to find an audience as a media conglomerate."
"This principle is called ‘net neutrality' - and it's under attack," the senator said.
What he is upset about is a new set of rules the FCC approved today which for the first time govern the behavior of companies who provide the public with Internet service. The rules are aimed at protecting net neutrality, but Franken and others say they fall short of that.
The rules create two categories of Internet access: fixed-line access provided by cable companies like Comcast, and wireless access provided by telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon.
The rules bar fixed-line broadband providers from blocking access to websites and applications. The rules also prohibit wireless companies from blocking websites, but allow these companies to block many applications and services, except for those like Skype that directly compete with the providers' voice and video products.
Franken points out that for many Americans - particularly those who live in rural areas (like much of his state, Minnesota) - Internet access depends on mobile, wireless services. Others note that young people, especially in lower income communities where families cannot afford home computers, often get Internet access solely through their phones. The proposed rules, the senator said, effectively allow discrimination against major sectors of the population.
Speaking on the Senate floor on Saturday, Franken said, "Maybe you like Google Maps. Well, tough. If the FCC passes this weak rule, Verizon will be able to cut off access to the Google Maps app on your phone and force you to use their own mapping program, Verizon Navigator, even if it is not as good. And even if they charge money, when Google Maps is free."
He added, "If corporations are allowed to prioritize content on the Internet, or they are allowed to block applications you access on your iPhone, there is nothing to prevent those same corporations from censoring political speech."
Franken said he was very disturbed that FCC Chair Julius Genachowski had called CEOs of major Internet corporations seeking their public endorsement of the rules.
Genachowski, a Democrat, was appointed by President Obama to head the five-member commission.
The two Republican commissioners, Meredith Baker and Robert McDowell, opposed the rules. Republicans claim that net neutrality rules are a form of government overreach. In a Wall Street Journal op ed, McDowell went so far as to claim that any regulation of Internet service companies would inhibit capital investment, deter innovation, raise prices and kill jobs.
The two other Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, acknowledged that the regulations are not as strong as they would have liked. But they said the rules had been improved this month as a result of discussions, and they joined Genachowski in voting for them, saying some protection of the public Internet was better than no protection.
Copps said he is not entirely happy with the final outcome, CNET News reported. In particular, Copps expressed concern that, even though the rules prohibit fixed line Internet providers from "unreasonably" discriminating against traffic on their network, service providers could implement "paid prioritization." That would give big corporations or other big money groups a "fast lane" on the Internet, while everyone else is put in the "slow lane."
In a statement issued before the commission's vote, Copps said he wanted to ensure that the Internet "doesn't travel down the same road of special interest consolidation and gate-keeper control that other media and telecommunications industries - radio, television, film and cable - have traveled."
"What an historic tragedy it would be," he said, "to let that fate befall the dynamism of the Internet."
Photo: Yutaka Tsutano CC 2.0