Tech giants and startups split on tactics in battle for net neutrality

The good news for advocates of net neutrality is that a lot of folks in tech are on the same side: scrappy startups and mighty companies like Google share the belief that broadband providers should not be allowed to discriminate in how they deliver web traffic. The bad news is that the small guys appear to believe this more than the big guys.

These different levels of conviction were apparent on Monday in the form of the last-minute submissions to the FCC, which had earlier called for comments on its proposal for internet “fast lanes” — a controversial idea that many in the tech world fear could smother start-ups who would be unable to pay the tolls to go fast.

In their new FCC submissions, two important tech constituencies set out their concerns in very similar language, but called for the agency to address the “fast lane” issue in very different ways.

One constituency is the Internet Association, a trade group for dozens of well-known companies such as Google(s goog), AOL(s aol), Facebook(s fb) and Amazon(s amzn). In its comment to the FCC, the group declared that any new rules “should subject broadband Internet access providers to non- discrimination, no-blocking, and robust transparency requirements” — but then recommended the agency adopt “simple light-touch rules” to resolve the situation.

The Association did not, however, use any of its 25-page comment (see below) to explain how the “light-touch” rules would work in practice. The omission is important since the FCC’s last attempt to finesse the non-discrimination issue collapsed in January when a DC appeals court ruled that the agency could not impose net neutrality without reclassifying the broadband providers as so-called “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act.

Even though the Title II reclassification would likely be essential to any official non-discrimination policy, the Internet Association’s comment does not even mention it once.

The same is not true, however, in Monday’s other major tech industry submission to the FCC. This one came from Y Combinator, a hugely influential startup incubator that attracts a regular stream of A-list entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The comment, authored by Reddit founder and Y Combinator partner Alexis Ohanian, stated bluntly:

“[W]e need a bright-line, per se rule against discrimination, access fees, and paid prioritization on both mobile and fixed … Only reclassifying broadband as Title II will protect an open and neutral Internet… the Court simply couldn’t have been clearer: so long as the FCC refuses to classify broadband providers as “telecommunications services” under Title II, the FCC cannot ban ISPs’ technical discrimination, access fees, or paid prioritization.”

The call for Title II echoes the public position of Etsy, Dwolla, CodeAcademy and General Assembly — names that are well known within tech circles, but are less familiar to ordinary consumers and to many in Washington. This name recognition is less of a problem for most of the companies in the Internet Association, which also includes Expedia, Yelp, Yahoo and TripAdvisor.

The split over tactics, especially Title II, is likely a harbinger for the rest of the FCC process. That process will begin this week with a 60-day reply period, offering another opportunity for the various groups to stake out their positions before the agency decides what to do. Meanwhile, sources in Washington claim that big tech companies are unlikely to make a stand on Title II, pointing out that no one has decided to write a big check to fight for reclassification.

If the major internet companies don’t shift on the Title II issue, however, the chances appear remote that the FCC will ultimately decide to reclassify the broadband providers — especially since Comcast(s cmcsa) and other powerful companies would fight reclassification vigorously.

Here’s a link to the Y Combinator comment. The Internet Association comment is below (I’ve underlined some of the key parts)

Internet Assoc Comments

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