FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s official response to the DC Appeals Court decision on the Commission’s “net neutrality” rules promises to keep the issue on the table for the foreseeable future. That is unfortunate, because there are better ways for the Commission and its staff to spend their time.
The Appeals Court took away from the Commission with one hand, while giving back with the other: It struck down the more onerous provisions of the net neutrality rules—the “anti-discrimination” and “anti-blocking” provisions—because they imposed common carrier obligations and broadband is not classified as a Title II common carrier service. However, the Court affirmed the Commission’s argument that it has general authority (under section 706 of the Communications Act) to regulate in order to encourage broadband deployment.
Since the Appeals Court decision came down, the FCC has been under considerable pressure from net neutrality proponents to reclassify broadband as a Title II common carrier. In today’s announcement, the Commission declined to do that. However, the Commission also declined to close the Title II docket, keeping the threat of reclassification and the regulatory burdens and oversight that go with it, alive.
In addition, the Commission announced its intention to start yet another net neutrality rulemaking, under its section 706 authority, in order to fulfill the Commission’s no blocking and non-discrimination goals as well as to enhance the transparency rule (the one major provision that the court upheld).
With all the activity aimed towards asserting legal justification for its net neutrality rules, it sometimes gets lost that the FCC had no convincing economic or consumer welfare justification for the rules in the first place.
While there is widespread agreement that the Internet should be open and provide consumers with access to content, applications and services of their choice, the rule was always a solution in search of a problem, a sentiment echoed today by FCC Commissioner Pai. The Commission never provided the necessary data and analysis to show that the rules would address a significant market failure, did not identify harms to users that the rules would remedy, and did not demonstrate that the benefits of the rules would exceed their costs. In other words, the Commission neglected to explain why the broadband market, which has generally thrived under minimal regulation, should now be subject to an enhanced regulatory regime. Indeed, a good argument can be made that, by making the adoption of innovative business models more difficult, the rules would have hindered rather than encouraged the deployment of broadband infrastructure, notwithstanding the Commission’s assertions to the contrary.
There is now substantial concern that the Appeals Court has expanded the Commission’s authority to include the entire Internet ecosystem—including potentially content, applications, and service providers—as long as it can make some plausible argument that its actions encourage broadband deployment. Expanding the Commission’s domain in this way would be a serious mistake and would compound the harm.
A major goal of the Commission in promulgating its net neutrality rules initially was to “provide greater predictability.” It clearly has not achieved that goal. Starting yet another proceeding, and keeping the Title II docket open, will create even more uncertainty for the entire Internet ecosystem.