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FCC officials hold secret meeting with Internet providers

Senior FCC officials met behind closed doors last week with representatives of broadband carriers and Internet firms to consider a possible compromise on Internet regulation. The meeting was an attempt to head off a controversial move by the commission to assert its authority over broadband networks.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s chief of staff and members of the commission’s office of strategic planning sat down with broadband providers including AT&T and Verizon, as well as Internet giants Google and Skype, to hash out differences on several issues.

A key topic during the two-hour discussion concerned net neutrality rules that would require network operators to treat all content equally, the “Washington Post” reported.

The meeting came two months after a federal court decision cast doubt on the FCC’s ability to enforce network neutrality. In that ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the FCC lacked the authority to stop Comcast from slowing traffic to a popular file-sharing website.

FCC chief of staff Eddie Lazarus told the newspaper that the commission held the meeting to “seize an opportunity.” Companies have already begun discussing various aspects of possible net neutrality regulations, considering, for example, how carriers could manage traffic on their networks and whether wireless services should be subject to the regulations.

Public interest groups criticized the meeting, saying it should have been conducted with greater transparency, particularly if the agency is considering a retreat from its recently announced plans to re-regulate broadband. No public interest groups were invited.

“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,” said Josh Silver, president and CEO of Free Press, a media advocacy group. “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.