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Congress, FCC launch campaigns for net neutrality, device openness

Markey back in the breach on net neutrality

Markey once more into the breach on net neutrality

In moves that could have an impact on every voice and streaming radio service on the Internet, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission proposed laws and launched inquiries today that show that the Obama administration and its allies on Capitol Hill weren’t kidding when they promised to promote net neutrality and device openness.

First, representatives Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) announced the introduction of H.R. 3458, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act (pdf), into the House of Representatives.  The bill would make it unlawful for an Internet Service Provider to “block, interfere with, discriminate against, impair, or degrade the ability of any person to use an Internet access service to access, use, send, post, receive, or offer any lawful content, application, or service through the Internet.” It would also require the FCC to set up rules to enforce these provisions, and to set up a complaint system by which consumers could alert the Commission to problems.

Shortly after Markey and Eshoo announced their new proposed law, the FCC sent letters to Apple, AT&T, and Google asking for details on reports that Apple has rejected Google Voice as an application. Here’s the agency’s letter to Apple’s Government Affairs Vice President Catherine A. Novelli in its entirety.

Dear Ms. Novelli:
Recent press reports indicate that Apple has declined to approve the Google Voice application for the iPhone and has removed related (and previously approved) third-party applications from the iPhone App Store.1 In light of pending FCC proceedings regarding wireless open access (RM-11361) and handset exclusivity (RM-11497), we are interested in a more complete understanding of this situation. To that end, please provide answers to the following questions by close of business on Friday, August 21, 2009.

1. Why did Apple reject the Google Voice application for iPhone and remove related third-party applications from its App Store? In addition to Google Voice, which related third-party applications were removed or have been rejected? Please provide the specific name of each application and the contact information for the developer.
2. Did Apple act alone, or in consultation with AT&T, in deciding to reject the Google Voice application and related applications? If the latter, please describe the communications between Apple and AT&T in connection with the decision to reject Google Voice. Are there any contractual conditions or non-contractual understandings with AT&T that affected Apple’s decision in this matter?
3. Does AT&T have any role in the approval of iPhone applications generally (or in certain cases)? If so, under what circumstances, and what role does it play? What roles are specified in the contractual provisions between Apple and AT&T (or any non-contractual understandings) regarding the consideration of particular iPhone applications?
4. Please explain any differences between the Google Voice iPhone application and any Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications that Apple has approved for the iPhone. Are any of the approved VoIP applications allowed to operate on AT&T’s 3G network?
5. What other applications have been rejected for use on the iPhone and for what reasons? Is there a list of prohibited applications or of categories of applications that is provided to potential vendors/developers? If so, is this posted on the iTunes website or otherwise disclosed to consumers?
6. What are the standards for considering and approving iPhone applications? What is the approval process for such applications (timing, reasons for rejection, appeal process, etc.)? What is the percentage of applications that are rejected? What are the major reasons for rejecting an application?

The FCC’s letters to AT&T and Google press for more details on this situation. “Did Apple consult with AT&T in the process of deciding to reject the Google Voice application?” the agency asks. “If so, please describe any communications between AT&T and Apple or Google on this topic, including the parties involved and a summary of any meetings or discussions.”

All three parties have until Friday, August 21 to respond to these probes. The Markey/Eshoo bill also calls for the FCC to run eight public broadband summits across the United States within a year of the bill’s passage. “These summits will be used to gather input from consumers, small business owners, entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders on Internet freedom and U.S. broadband policies affecting consumer protection, competition, and consumer choice,” their press release says.

It’s not like this is the first time that Markey and Eshoo have pushed for this kind of legislation. They introduced similar measures as bills or amendments in the 110th and 109th Congresses. But with Democrats controlling the Senate Commerce/Science and House Commerce telecommunications subcommittees, a strong net neutrality bill seems much closer to enactment than ever before.


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