FCC Prepares to Try to Rewrite, Reboot Net Neutrality
February 12, 2014 8:09 PM
Arbitrary enforcement killed 2012-drafted rules in January
U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit
pleased telecoms and riled internet content creators when it shot down
U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chief
(FCC) for a second straight time. But the ruling was not without its silver lining for the FCC and
net neutrality advocates
I. FCC Chief Says New Blueprint is Coming
the 2008 ruling
, the court was able to more carefully scrutinize
the FCC's policy and justification
. As a result, this time around and it actually delivered some good news for the FCC.
According to Circuit Judges
David S. Tatel
, who wrote the majority opinion for the three judge panel, the FCC was empowered to enforce some form of net neutrality as Congress granted the FCC enforcement powers to create a "vibrant and competitive free market" (
47 U.S.C. § 230
Chapter 5, Subchapter II, created by
The Communications Act of 1934
[PDF], modified by the
Telecommunications Act of 1996
). The outcome was the same as the first case only because the appeals court felt the FCC's rules treated carriers themselves in arbitrary and discriminatory way, choosing only some of the time to enforce its rules.
In the wake of that ruling,
new FCC Chairman Thomas ("Tom") Wheeler
has spent the last few weeks pondering his board's course of action. Rather than appeal the ruling (one of the options on the table) he announced at a
University of Colorado
speech that the FCC would work to redraft
its net neutrality blueprint
All eyes are on new FCC Chair Tom Wheeler regarding how to salvage net neutrality.
[Image Source: Bloomberg]
In its Verizon v. FCC decision, the Court of Appeals invited the Commission to act to preserve a free and open Internet. I accept that invitation, and in the coming days, I will be outlining how I propose to proceed.
We can't just kick the can down the road. We have an obligation to act now with the principles that have been transmitted to us in the form of statutes, judicial and regulatory precedents, scholarship, and experience.
His organization must now find a way to eliminate or navigate around a hurdle that his predecessors created.
The debate revolves to what constitutes a "common carrier". In the early days of the internet, traffic traveled over phone lines so enforcement on common carriers (landlines) meant effective enforcement on all internet service providers. With the advent of fiber optic internet, internet service providers pushed the FCC to classify them as "broadband" -- a new communications class -- to prevent subjecting the fledgling infrastructure to overly onerous regulation. The FCC agreed with this logic and classified them different.
This would come back to bite it, as the key reason why the circuit court viewed the FCC's enforcement as arbitrary was because the law only empowered it to enforce a free internet market on "common carriers" -- dialup internet providers. Broadband, according to the court, was exempt on a technicality that the FCC itself made up.
The FCC may have to try to reclassify broadband providers as a "common carrier" in order to regulate them under current laws. [Image Source: Guardian UK]
The FCC could opt to reclassify broadband as a common carrier, which is perhaps its best option. But that would likely provoke outrage from broadband service providers, which would likely argue that the move would not only subject them to net neutrality regulation, but other policies that applied to landlines (and dialup internet) which might be punitive or nonsensical for broadband.
The only other apparent option would be to update the law to include promoting a free market among "broadband providers" and "common carriers" alike. That arguably is the most appealing option in that it would be unlikely to generate as much resistance from broadband providers.
But for political reasons that option is basically off the table, at present.
III. Don't Expect a Bailout From Congress
The root of the problem lies in that while some broadband providers (like Verizon Inc. (
not opposed to mild, rigidly defined net neutrality
, others oppose it in an absolute sense. These broadband providers -- such as Comcast Corp. (
) -- are vigorously opposed to any sort of regulation as they believe they should be "free" to adopt
creative new pricing schemes
to not only charge users for services, but also demand tolls from users access sites and from the sites to serve the user.
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives -- heavily supported by campaign donations from Comcast and other net-neutrality ISPs -- have in effect
argued that such corporate "triple dipping" should be legal
Given that they control the U.S. House and that they have drafted bills looking to explicitly
the FCC from any sort of net neutrality regulation, it seems unlikely that any bill to clarify and codify net neutrality would make it in the House (even if it was passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate).
Congress is deadlocked on the issue of net neutrality. [Image Source: U.S. Congress]
Mr. Wheeler acknowledged this reality in his speech.
But while the deadlock means Congress won't be riding in on a horse to save the FCC's net neutrality legislatively, it's more than happy to vent its frustrations and concerns at the commissioners.
A coalition of five Democratic Senators --
Senator Alan Stuart "Al" Franken
Senator Ronald Lee "Ron" Wyden
Senator Jeffrey Alan "Jeff" Merkley
Senator Edward John "Ed" Markey
Senator Richard Blumenthal
penned a letter
[PDF] to the FCC, urging it to move quickly to draft new rules. In the letter they write:
Consumers, entrepreneurs and innovators deserve to know their right to view or use the content and services of their choice online will be protected.
In other words, Mr. Wheeler may be choosing the best route in embracing the court ruling, but he better figure out a way to convince service providers to tolerate reclassification or figure out a clever alternative or the internet content industry and consumers will remain vulnerable to abuse.
U.S. Senators to FCC [PDF]
"We can't expect users to use common sense. That would eliminate the need for all sorts of legislation, committees, oversight and lawyers." -- Christopher Jennings
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