FCC Holds Closed-Door 'Open Internet' Talks

Federal Communications Commission officials held closed-door meetings Monday with cable and telecom lobbyists who oppose the "open" Internet rules proposed by agency Chairman Julius Genachowski. Last Friday, the same officials met with representatives of the Open Internet Coalition, which includes Internet companies in favor of Genachowski's plans.

The FCC is "trying to see how far apart the sides are and whether there is any common ground," a person involved with the talks told DailyFinance.

The closed-door sessions represent a long-shot attempt to reach a compromise over the FCC's power to regulate broadband Internet companies. Facing growing political pressure to deliver results soon, the FCC is holding private discussions in parallel with congressional efforts toward a solution.

The meetings have been led by FCC Chief of Staff Edward Lazarus, a former L.A.-based lawyer and friend of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. The FCC declined to comment Monday night. The Wall Street Journal first reported the talks.

Interest Groups Not Invited

Representatives of AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ), the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Google (GOOG) and Skype are all involved in the talks. Public-interest and consumer groups, however, have not been invited to the sessions and lambasted the agency's closed-door process.

"It is stunning that the FCC would convene meetings between industry giants to allow them to determine how the agency should best protect the public interest," says Josh Silver, head of D.C. advocacy group Free Press.

The meetings are designed to see if common ground can be reached over the FCC's power to regulate the broadband industry, after a federal court ruled in April that the agency lacks such authority.

The FCC is searching for a way to reestablish its authority so it can set rules requiring "network neutrality," the idea that Internet providers should treat Web content equally and not discriminate against rivals.

The agency has proposed reclassifying broadband as an information service, a move vigorously opposed by the telecom and cable industry, which has instead been lobbying Congress to seek a legislative solution. Congressional Democrats are weighing "targeted legislation" that would update federal communications law to reestablish FCC authority.

Anger Over "Backroom Deals"

But some critics accused the FCC of trying to broker a backroom deal that would water down net neutrality.

"The Obama administration promised a new era of transparency, and to 'take a backseat to no one' on net neutrality, but these meetings seem to indicate that this FCC has no problem brokering backroom deals without any public input or scrutiny," Silver says.

"It is odd that the FCC would even think it is appropriate to be brokering such a deal, given the agency's authority is in jeopardy," Silver adds. "Without reasserting its legal authority over broadband, the FCC can't implement whatever unlikely consensus is reached by these industry giants. The FCC must abandon this misguided effort and follow through with its plan to reestablish its legal authority to promote universal access and protect the open Internet."