Dec 292010
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IN THE game of political football that the debate over the future of internet access in America has become, the Federal Communications Commission’s chairman, Julius Genachowski, scored a belated goal earlier this week.

Whether it was one for his own team or for the other side is too early to say. However, following nearly two years of wrangling, there can be little doubt that the 3-2 vote by the FCC commissioners in favour of adopting “net neutrality” (ie, no restrictions on the kind of content, services and applications carried over the internet) was rushed through on December 21st before the political climate could change in the new year and make such wranglings trickier still.

To get a majority, Mr Genachowski (appointed by President Obama, an old law-school chum) strong-armed the two other Democrats on the commission, who had been holding out for a better deal for consumers. Meanwhile, the two Republican commissioners cried foul, objecting rightly to the haste with which the moves were being hustled through. The internet is not broken, they insisted, and is therefore in no imminent need of repair. After the vote in favour, a relieved White House hurriedly declared victory—calling the outcome a great plus for innovation, job creation and the American people. It was, of course, no such thing.

One thing is for sure, though: the FCC’s new rules for internet access will face scrutiny in Congress once the Republican Party takes control of the House of Representatives in January. Ironically, the net-neutrality principle that is causing Republicans such constipation was introduced by a Republican chairman of the FCC, Kevin Martin, back in 2005, using ideas promulgated by his Republican predecessor, Michael Powell. But in the present dysfunctional world of partisan politics, few are interested in network niceties, still less in the legitimate online concerns of the American people.

No doubt, the new net-neutrality rules will be challenged in the courts as well. Last April, a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC did not have the legal authority to punish Comcast, America’s biggest cable TV company and internet service provider, for discriminating against a file-sharing service that was hogging excessive bandwidth. The failure to make the case stick was a bitter disappointment for Mr Genachowski, who had hoped it would set a legal precedent for any future violations of the net-neutrality principle. Now Verizon, America’s leading mobile and fixed-line carrier, looks set to challenge the new net-neutrality rules in court.

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