Will Obama FCC Break Network Neutrality Promise—Undermine 21st Century Public Sphere?

A somewhat obtuse Washington Post article today says that the FCC Chairman is considering a “deregulatory” framework for Internet access.

Translating the article is simple for those watching this debate at political sites: the FCC is considering following the Bush administration’s disastrous policies of stripping itself of jurisdiction over Internet access, treating such access as effectively un-regulatable “information services.” The FCC’s recent loss at the D.C. Circuit made it clear that the practical effect of such a decision would be to hand the Internet over to the phone and cable companies, undermining innovation, competition online, and Americans’ interests in free speech, in privacy, and in associations. The FCC would then face insurmountable legal obstacles to pursuing network neutrality, a common-sense policy that would forbid cable and phone companies from doing what they’ve long lobbied to do: block or discriminate against websites and applications on the Internet.  This would violate Obama campaign promises.  (See clips here and here, for example.)

This episode is an example of what Jack Balkin often writes about—how the most important free speech issues of our day will not be decided by the Supreme Court but through technical decisions by bodies like the FCC.  And they will be decided not by lawyers or engineers or policy experts, but perhaps by lobbyists and executives working for the phone and cable companies.  These lobbyists are urging the FCC to follow the path of bureaucrats and politicians before them: break a promise to the public, but do it in an obscure, technical-sounding way so that nobody understands, until it’s too late.

At the heart of the debate is the issue of Internet openness – whether to allow the phone and cable companies to control everything you do on the Internet, or to ensure that the network infrastructure provides access to an open, unfettered space for communications. Many scholars have written in this space – Jack Balkin, Larry Lessig, Yochai Benkler, Barbara van Schewick, Tim Wu, Mark Lemley, Susan Crawford, and Brett Frischmann, to name a few. All of them have supported control by the public over control by the phone and cable execs.  Tim Wu, Susan Crawford, and I explained the legal issue in a letter to the Chairman we sent last Friday.

And the FCC has ostensibly supported this goal as well – the Chairman has pledged “unwavering support” for network neutrality. The President has said he is a big supporter or network neutrality and that he would appoint FCC Commissioners who supported network neutrality.  But to get to enforceable network neutrality, the FCC must first correct the mistakes of the past, most made under the Bush administration. The FCC under George W. Bush stripped itself of jurisdiction over Internet practices with decisions issued from 2002 to 2007—in that deregulatory haze that led to Wall Street abuses, our Internet infrastructure falling behind other nations, and an economic collapse.  Regulation to protect consumers and competition was considered as quaint and outdated as the Geneva Conventions.

The Obama administration promised to reverse these failed Internet policies, and Barack Obama emphatically promised network neutrality during the campaign and since becoming president.

In 2005, the Supreme Court had upheld the Bush framework under Chevron, but made it clear the old, traditional, framework was also a reasonable interpretation of the statute, and one that gave the FCC clear authority over broadband communications services.

In early April of this year, the D.C. Circuit told the FCC that the Bush policies, while a reasonable framework under Chevron, left the FCC with very-little-to-no authority over broadband. Under the Bush framework, the FCC could not even stop the largest cable company from (secretly) blocking valuable and popular Internet applications. This was a pretty stark violation of the open Internet, which the Bush framework couldn’t reach.

The logical next step, in the wake of these cases, is self-evident: go back to the old pre-Bush framework, the framework that (even) Justice Scalia and two other Justices believed to be the unambiguous intention of Congress. That framework is found in Title II of the Communications Act, designed for all two-way communications networks.

The FCC imposes this framework on many broadband services already: business networks, middle mile networks, and many rural Internet networks.  Title II even governs supposedly competitive, largely deregulated phone services, like long distance calling and mobile phone service.  The FCC also has the power under Title II to forbear from any really problematic, onerous regulations, and tailor regulations to individual networks and circumstances.

Fixing the Bush mistakes should be a no-brainer for this administration, and it would clear the path for network neutrality, universal service for broadband, privacy protections, network security policies, and a host of other essential issues.

But recent press accounts suggest the political pressure of the few, powerful phone and cable carriers might be too much for the politics of hope. Organized money may defeat organized people.  I find it hard to believe, but public choice theory suggests that the incumbent corporate insiders will win. And that will transform how we participate in public discourse, volunteer for campaigns, create culture, dissent politically.  That will act to close off many of the most important channels of political change in our nation, and the world.

The principle of network neutrality is—as Jack and Yochai and others have written—one of the most important principles for ensuring freedom of speech in the 21st Century.  If this issue goes the wrong way, it’s not only a broken political promise, but disastrous policy for our democracy.

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