Net Neutrality goes to Court…Again

by on October 4, 2011 · 1 comment

On NPR’s Marketplace this morning, I talk about net neutrality litigation with host John Moe.

Nearly a year after the FCC passed controversial new “Open Internet” rules by a 3-2 vote, the White House finally gave approval for the rules to be published last week, unleashing lawsuits from both supporters and detractors.

The supporters don’t have any hope or expectation of getting a court to make the rules more comprehensive.  So why sue?  When lawsuits challenging federal regulations are filed in multiple appellate courts, a lottery determines which court hears a consolidated appeal.

So lawsuits by net neutrality supporters are a procedural gimmick, an effort to take cases challenging the FCC’s authority out of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has already made clear the FCC has no legal basis here.

But Verizon’s lawsuit challenges the rules as material changes to existing licenses for spectrum, a challenge that is exclusive to the D.C. Circuit.  If the D.C. Circuit agrees that the rules can be challenged under that provision of the law, then the case stays in D.C..

Beyond the procedure, the substance of Verizon’s challenge will be formidable.  In the 2010 Comcast case, the court eviscerated the FCC’s argument that various provisions of the Communications Act give them the authority to police broadband providers.

And the Open Internet order largely repeated those arguments, a sure sign that the agency really doesn’t expect to win here.  The December vote was largely symbolic, fulfilling an Obama campaign promise to codify net neutrality and moving the noisy and messy proceeding from the agency to the courts.

The real issue here is convergence.  In 1996, when the Communications Act was last overhauled, the commercial use of the Internet was in its infancy.  Broadcast TV, radio, telephone, cable, mobile and data services were still separate technologies, and the 1996 Act gave the FCC separate and different authority over each.  For the Internet, the agency got next to no authority.

In the 15 years since President Clinton signed the 1996 act, of course, the world of communications has been revolutionized by the Internet and broadband.  The FCC’s traditional regulatory subjects have largely converged onto the TCP/IP protocol, generating a flowering of innovation and new devices and services.  Cable providers are phone companies, phone companies are content providers, and computer companies such as Apple and Google are, well, everything.

Consumers are living in a golden age of communications, but the agency has been left with little to oversee.  Wireline voice has become an unprofitable and shrinking business as consumers cut the cord.  The audience for broadcast TV is getting older and smaller at a rapid pace.  This term, the Supreme Court is likely to slap the agency again for its Victorian sensibilities with regard to TV and radio content censorship.

Perhaps Congress will someday decide that broadband services require the kind of oversight and micromanagement the FCC once had over traditional forms of communication.  Then again, wiser heads may take note of the success of the Internet in a world without much regulation, and decide to leave well enough alone.  Perhaps a great overhaul of communications law will clear the decks altogether, creating a single body of law for the converged industries.

Who can say?  But in the meantime, the FCC can’t simply grant itself new authority to regulate.  Regardless of the sincerity of its belief that “prophylactic” rules to preserve the Open Internet are important, federal agencies can’t regulate without Congressional authorization.  Whether in the courts or in Congress itself, the net neutrality rules will be struck down, first and foremost because the FCC had no power to enact them.

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