If Congress and the President wanted to prevent intrusive regulation of the Internet, how would they do it? They know that silence on the issue wouldn’t protect Internet services. As Congress learned in the 1960s and 1970s with cable TV, congressional silence, to the FCC, looks like permission to enact a far-reaching regulatory regime.
In the 1990s, Congress knew the FCC would be tempted to regulate the Internet and Internet services and that silence would be seen as an invitation to regulate the Internet. Congress and President Clinton therefore passed a 1996 law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which stated:
It is the policy of the United States…to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation.
But this statement raised the possibility that the FCC would regulate Internet access providers and would claim (as FCC defenders do today) they were not regulating “the Internet,” only access providers. To preempt such sophistry, Congress added that the “interactive computer services” shielded from regulation include:
specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet….
Congress proved prescient. For over a decade, as the FCC’s traditional areas of regulation waned in importance, advocates and FCC officials have sought to regulate Internet access providers and the Internet. After two failed attempts to regulate providers and enforce net neutrality norms, the FCC decided to regulate Internet access providers with Title II, the same provisions regulating telephone and telegraph providers. Section 230 featured prominently in the dissents of commissioners Pai and O’Rielly who both noted that the Open Internet Order was a simple rejection of the plain words of Congress. Nevertheless, two judges on DC Circuit Court of Appeals blessed those regulations and the Open Internet Order in 2016.
If “unfettered from Federal regulation” means anything, doesn’t it mean that the FCC cannot use Title II, its most stringent regulatory regime, to regulate Internet access providers? Is there any combination of words Congress could draft that would protect Internet access providers and Internet services from Title II?
There is a pending appeal challenging the Open Internet Order before the DC Circuit and after that is appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, in particular, might be receptive to a common-sense argument that “unfettered from Federal regulation” is hazy around the edges but it cannot mean regulation of ISPs’ content, services, protocols, network topology, and business models.
I understand the sentiment that a net neutrality compromise is urgently needed to save the Internet from Title II. But until the Open Internet Order appeals have concluded, I think it’s premature to compromise and grant the FCC permanent authority to regulate the Internet with vague standards (e.g., no one knows what “reasonable throttling” means). A successful appeal could mean a third and final court loss for net neutrality purists, thereby restoring Section 230’s free-market protections for the Internet. Until the Supreme Court denies cert or agrees with the FCC that up is down, black is white, and agencies can ignore clear statutes, I’m not persuaded that Congress should nullify its own deregulatory language of Section 230 with a net neutrality compromise.