Is the net neutrality debate over?

Mike Riggs Contributor
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For two days now, the cannons in the net neutrality debate have fired nary a shot. Rep. Henry Waxman has yet to introduce the net neutrality bill [PDF] that supposedly leaked from his office earlier this week, but congressional insiders say the finished version will look much the same. If nothing changes in the legislation, could the ceasefire be permanent?

“I don’t know how every single carrier will see this,” said one telecommunications consultant, “but for Democrats to find Henry Waxman to the right of them is a problem.”

One explanation for the relative quiet may be the fact that the bill Waxman is set to unveil represents a rare thing in Washington: a compromise that leaves no party empty-handed; net neutrality proponents got their four principles set in stone and corporate interests escaped regulations that would control their ability to implement tiered services or effectively manage their networks. At least for the next two years, which is the lifespan of Waxman’s bill.

“This bill is intended to signal how [FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski] should go forward,” said the consultant, adding that the bill will probably shape the FCC’s actions even if it doesn’t pass in Congress.

To some degree, this is what Genachowski has been asking for all along. After a court ruled in April that Comcast could control its high-speed traffic however it saw fit, the chairman’s back has been up against the wall. On one side of him are public interests groups and the progressive netroots, demanding that the FCC take dramatic steps to shackle ISPs, and on the other, the companies that stand to be regulated, as well as unions like the CWA, which see strict net neutrality as a job-killer.

And watching from a marble throne in the coliseum are congressional Democrats, many of them reluctant to pass legislation that ISPs would construe as a job-killer, or piss off the professional left. Waxman’s bill may be a sign that congressional Democrats are ready to put this issue in the rear-view mirror.

Even if Democrats have chosen to exercise what many in the telecommunications industry are cautiously yet optimistically calling a “light regulatory touch,” there will likely be a few more volleys before the dust settles. The Tea Party’s staunch opposition to any regulation whatsoever presents an obstacle for congressional Republicans, many of whom who are reluctant to voluntarily regulate an entire industry.

There are doubts on the left, as well. The Open Internet Coalition, a powerful network of companies and public interest groups such as Google, Amazon, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and the New America Foundation, all of which support net neutrality, could be seeing the first signs of a schism: More left-leaning members of the coalition have something of a go-big-or-go-home attitude; while centrists are happy to see the four principles set in stone.

In other words, it ain’t over until it’s over.