Net Neutrality Gets New ‘Title’

A group of minority broadcasters is taking a somewhat novel approach in its attempt to help sway the network neutrality debate and keep the open Internet rules in business.

With the FCC continuing to hear complaints on the matter, the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council (MMTC) is using a civil rights model to combat what they see as Web discrimination.

The model adds yet a different option to the commission’s ongoing net neutrality debate, which has been mainly between considerations of Title I and Title II of the Communications Act. The MMTC prefers inserting a new title into the mix—Title VII, a part of the Civil Rights Act—and calls out the Equal Opportunity Commission to help get the FCC’s new proposed rules enforced.

The MMTC, which backs a Sec. 706 approach to network neutrality—which addresses whether or not the government should intercede to prevent a broadband access “digital divide”—has proposed the FCC adopt a more “informal” complaint method that could lead to more formal follow-up where necessary, to ensure that the process is sufficiently swift and friendly to smaller players that can’t afford high-priced lawyers, or to wait out a lengthy process.

The key to the FCC’s new net neutrality proposal states that the commission would look at allegations of online discrimination on a case-by-case basis, rather than have a bright-line rule preventing it in all circumstances. Such a ban could conceivably prevent prioritizing, say, emergency voice traffic over video game play.

But to make sure discrimination is not used anticompetitively, the FCC will need to be able to take action against commercially unreasonable discrimination.

That is where the MMTC proposal comes in.

“Such a procedure should help alleviate any misimpression that Section 706 is insufficiently muscular to preserve Internet openness, while at the same time building consumer confidence in the FCC’s stewardship of the open Internet,” said an MMTC spokesperson.

Net neutrality activists fear that by the time complaints have been identified and adjudicated, the damage will have been done, which is why they push for reclassifying ISP’s under Title II regulations with mandatory access provisions.

A New Path to Exposure

While the National Association of Broadcasters has remained neutral on the issue, minority broadcasters have weighed in, in part because the Web is a new opportunity to get in front of eyeballs, given the relative lack of minority broadcast ownership.

“Minority entrepreneurs, including broadcasters wishing to expand into the digital content space, need the commission to develop stable open Internet rules that are unlikely to be overturned in court,” MMTC president and executive director David Honig told B&C. “Most of the nation’s major minority organizations, including the NAACP, National Urban League, LULAC, Rainbow PUSH, National Action Network and MMTC favor the use of Section 706 of the Telecom Act over reclassification of broadband as a public utility. However, Section 706 contains no directions to the commission on enforcement, so the FCC would either have to default to its general non-consumer-friendly complaint and petition procedures, or develop new ones specifically for Section 706 Open Internet issues.”

MMTC executive director David Honig says the EEOC’s “probable cause” complaint enforcement model under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is consumer friendly, expeditious and provides regulatory certainty.

The FCC brought up the proposal at a net neutrality roundtable, and National Cable & Telecommunications Association exec Rick Chessen suggested that it was an intriguing proposal, starting with its suggestion of a “robust enforcement regime” under Sec. 706, which cable operators strongly favor over the Title II “nuclear” option.

Chris Riley, senior policy engineer of Mozilla said it was not an official position, but added he would tend not to favor that since adding an extra step of informal complaint would lengthen an already long process.

The commission is now considering a “rainbow” of options for reinstating and enforcing the rules based on over 3.7 million comments, meetings and roundtables that continue into next week, according to Julie Veach, chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau.


NPR will begin disclosing in its stories that it has filed comments in the FCC docket taking a position on the network neutrality issue.

That is according to Mark Memmott, NPR senior editor for standards and practices, who added that when the news outlet realized its mistake, it moved quickly to correct it.

“Usually, legal is good about giving the newsroom a heads up or we are good about it, in obvious cases, asking, ‘Hey, have we filed any public comments on this?’ In this case, we just didn’t.”

NPR has provided plenty of coverage of the network neutrality debate and the arguments being made on both sides, down to the level of extended comment deadlines, metaphors used in the debate, where the comments were coming from geographically and why many of them would fall on deaf ears.

But since July 15, what none of the stories and blogs about the issue told readers and listeners was that NPR had been one of those commenters, with a strongly held opinion, coming out against FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal to use a commercially reasonable standard for paid priority.

Memmott said he tweeted the following two weeks ago when he found out the legal department had weighed in at the FCC:

“NPR legal counsel’s comments about FCC’s net neutrality proposal are here: The NPR newsroom, of course, is neutral.”

He also told B&C that going forward, the net neutrality stories would carry a disclaimer, though NPR will not retroactively label the stories that came out after July 15. “No, that would seem like overkill to me,” he said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.