On its face, Verizon won a resounding victory in Verizon v. FCC since the controversial net neutrality regulations were vacated by all three DC Circuit judges. This marks the second time in four years the FCC had its net neutrality enforcement struck down.
Look at published reactions, though, and you’ll see that both sides feel they suffered a damaging loss in yesterday’s decision.
Prominent net neutrality advocates say “the court loss was even more emphatic and disastrous than anyone expected” and a “FEMA-level fail.”
Conversely, critics of net neutrality say that it was a “big win for FCC” and that “the court has given the FCC near limitless power to regulate not just broadband, but the Internet itself.”
Most analysis of the case will point out that it’s a mixed bag for both sides. What is clear is that the net neutrality movement suffered an almost complete loss in the short term. The FCC’s regulations from the Open Internet Order preventing ISPs from “unreasonable discrimination” and “blocking” of Internet traffic were struck down. The court said those prohibitions are equivalent to common carrier obligations. Since ISPs are not common carriers–per previous FCC rulings–most of the Open Internet Order was vacated.
The long term is more uncertain and net neutrality critics have ample reason to be concerned. The court yesterday said the FCC has broad authority to regulate ISPs’ treatment of traffic under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. This somewhat unanticipated conclusion–given its breadth–leaves the FCC with several options if it wants to enact net neutrality or “net neutrality-lite” regulations.
Putting aside the possibility that the FCC or Verizon will appeal the decision, these are the developments to watch:
1. Title II reclassification.
The FCC could always reclassify ISPs as common carriers and subject them to common carrier obligations. I think this is unlikely for several reasons.
First, reclassification would absolutely poison relationships with Congressional Republicans, some important Democrats, and the broadband industry. This is a large reason why then-FCC Chairman Genachowski did not seriously pursue reclassification in 2010. If anything, the political climate is worse for reclassification. Republicans and ISPs simply oppose reclassification more than Democrats and advocates support it.
Second, the content companies–like Google, Hulu, and Netflix–who would ostensibly benefit from net neutrality seem to have cooled to the idea. Part of content companies’ waning interest in net neutrality, I suspect, is exhaustion. This fight has gone on for a decade with little to show for it. They may also realize that ISPs are not likely to engage in truly abusive behaviors. Broadband speeds and capacity have advanced substantially in a decade and concerns about being squeezed out have lessened. There are also powerful norms that ISPs are not likely to violate. Consumers don’t like unseemly behavior by ISPs–like throttling a competing VoIP or video provider. If only because of the PR risk, ISPs have significant incentives to maintain the level of service they have historically provided.
Third, reclassification is a time-consuming and legally fraught process. Even the most principled net neutrality proponents don’t want ISPs subjected to every applicable Title II obligation. But “forbearance” of Title II regulations means several regulatory proceedings, each one potentially subject to litigation.
Finally, Chairman Tom Wheeler, fortunately, does not appear to be an ideologue willing to spend most of his tenure as chairman re-fighting this bitter fight. His comments last month were telling:
I think we’re also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say, ‘well, I’ll pay in order to make sure that . . . my subscriber receives, the best possible transmission of this movie.’ I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve.
This statement struck dread in the hearts of many net neutrality proponents. I’ve always believed he was talking about specialized services when he made this statement since pay-for-priority deals were essentially banned by the Open Internet Order. Regardless, his apparent comfort with changing pricing dynamics in two-sided markets indicates he is not a net neutrality partisan. I suspect Chairman Wheeler wants to go down as the chairman who guided America to a mobile future. His priorities seem to be in getting spectrum auctions right, not in rehashing old battles.
2. Pay-for-priority deals.
The legal uncertainties need to be settled before ISPs begin looking at prioritization deals, but they’ll probably pursue some. For example, gaming services might want to pay ISPs to make sure gamers receive low latency connections and large enterprise customers might want prioritized traffic for services like virtual desktops for, say, on-the-road employees. No one knows how common these deals will be. In any case, these deals will probably be closely monitored by the FCC for perceived abuses of market power, as explained next.
3. Increased FCC scrutiny using Section 706.
Substantial and costly scrutiny of ISPs’ traffic management from the FCC is the long-term fear. It now appears that the FCC has many tools to regulate how ISPs treat traffic under Section 706. I call this net neutrality-lite but 706 authority has the potential to be a more powerful weapon than the Open Internet Order. Not only can the FCC use 706 to regulate ISPs through adjudications, the mere threat of using 706 against ISPs may induce compliance. If there is a bright side to the court’s recognition of the FCC’s 706 authority, it’s that it makes Title II reclassification of ISPs less likely.
Verizon v. FCC was mostly a win for those of us who viewed the Open Internet Order as a regulatory overreach. Risks remain since net neutrality as a policy goal will not die, but reclassification is a long shot, fortunately. Policy watchers will be analyzing Wheeler’s actions, in particular, to see whether the FCC pursues its Section 706 authority to regulate ISPs. Hopefully the court’s decision is accepted as final and marks the end of the most heated battles over net neutrality. The FCC could then turn its attention to important issues like spectrum auctions, the IP transition, and the rapidly changing television market.