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Net Neutrality

D.C. Circuit Court Upholds FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Repeal of Net Neutrality, But Allows States to Fill the Void

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Photo of Ajit Pai in February 2018 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

WASHINGTON, October 1, 2019 — The Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of Obama-era network neutrality rules will remain, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on Tuesday.

However, in a bit of a split decision, the court said that the agency did not have authority to preemptively ban states from passing their own versions of net neutrality legislation.

The panel largely rejected a challenge to new rules which reclassify broadband internet as an information service, rather than a common carrier akin to telephone service.

The ruling appeared to put an end to efforts by public interest advocacy groups and some internet companies to overturn the reclassification of broadband internet service.

In December 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai led the Republican commissioners to overturn the agency’s February 2015 decision to prohibit broadband providers from blocking or throttling particularl types of internet traffic.

“We hold that classifying broadband Internet access as an “information service” based on the functionalities of DNS and caching is “‘a reasonable policy choice for the [FCC] to make,’” the court wrote in a unanimous opinion. The decision relied heavily on case law – so-called Chevron deference after a Supreme Court case by that name from the 1980s — requiring courts to defer to agencies’ interpretations of ambiguous statutes.

The plaintiffs’ objections to the reclassification, the court wrote, were “unconvincing for the most part.”

In leaving room for states to enact their own net neutrality laws — by finding that the agency lacked the authority to bar states from enacting rules more stringent than the FCC’s requirements — some aspects of the decision cheered advocates of net neutrality. The court also required the FCC to more fully consider the needs of public safety users.

In a statement, TechFreedom President Berin Szoka applauded the court’s decision, but noted that it leaves room for a future Democratic-majority FCC to reinstate the Obama-era rules and shift the long-running battle over network neutrality to state legislatures and case-by-case court battles.

“Today’s decision vindicates the RIFO, but Chevron deference to the Republican FCC’s interpretation will likely be tomorrow’s Chevron deference to the next Democratic FCC’s interpretation,” Szoka said. “So this issue will remain a political football for the foreseeable future, unless and until Congress finally writes into statute the open Internet principles that virtually all parties have agreed on since 2004.”

Internet Innovation Alliance Co-Chairs Rick Boucher, Bruce Mehlman, and Kim Keenan also lauded the ruling, which they said “deserves applause from everyone who wants to see an expansion of innovation, competition and investment in the internet ecosystem.”

“But ruling that the FCC can’t block state laws and thus allowing rules that differ among all 50 states could spell disaster for advancement of the internet, as web services are offered on a national basis, and many would be disrupted by a multiplicity of diverse and contradictory state net neutrality requirements,” they added.

“Unless Congress codifies nationwide open internet rules, including the designation of broadband as an information service, we will very likely see continuation of the ping-pong at the FCC between classifications of broadband as an information service and as a telecommunications service.”

Also speaking out in favor of the decision was US Telecom CEO Jonathan Spalter, who said in a statement that the court “got it right and affirmed what anyone who has been paying attention to Washington’s net neutrality saga knows to be true: the internet is open, ISPs are investing to bring internet users the content they want, and we remain absolutely opposed to anti-consumer practices like blocking, throttling and anti-competitive paid-prioritization.”

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a longtime network neutrality proponent, said in a statement that the court’s decision “leaves the future of the free and open internet in question.”

“When I attended the net neutrality court hearing earlier this year, I heard the FCC and broadband industry use tortured logic to defend the repeal of net neutrality and undermine strong rules for an open internet,” Markey said. “Sadly, today’s court opinion doesn’t reflect the clear reality that Americans rely on the internet the way they rely on electricity or telephone service.

But at the FCC, the court’s decision providing something for everyone.

In dueling press statements, both Republicans and Democrats at the FCC claimed victory.

Said the Republican Pai, ignoring the criticisms of the ruling made by the three judge panel:

“Today’s decision is a victory for consumers, broadband deployment, and the free and open Internet.  The court affirmed the FCC’s decision to repeal 1930s utility-style regulation of the Internet imposed by the prior Administration.  The court also upheld our robust transparency rule so that consumers can be fully informed about their online options.  Since we adopted the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, consumers have seen 40 percent faster speeds and millions more Americans have gained access to the Internet.  A free and open Internet is what we have today and what we’ll continue to have moving forward.  We look forward to addressing on remand the narrow issues that the court identified.”

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat highlighted the fact that states remain free to pass net neutrality legislation:

“Above all else, today’s decision breathes new life into the fight for an open internet.  It confirms that states can continue to step into the void left by this FCC.  To that end, it is a validation of those states that have already sought to protect consumers, and a challenge to those that haven’t yet acted to think hard about how to protect their citizens.  More pointedly, the decision affirms that the FCC ignored key aspects of its mission with regard to public safety and broadband deployment.  And the decision admonishes this Commission for its failure to consider the impact of its action in this context on Lifeline, a critical program that makes broadband more affordable for low-income consumers.”

Andrew Feinberg was the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

FCC

GOP Congresswoman Says FCC Puts Politics Over the Law

‘Our founders provided Congress with legislative authority to ensure lawmaking is done by elected officials, not unaccountable bureaucrats.’

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Photo of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R–Wash., obtained from Flickr.

WASHINGTON, October 28, 2022 – Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R–Wash., accused the Federal Communications Commission of politicized actions in excess of its statutory authority, in a letter sent in September and apparently released by the agency last week.

To prevent possible FCC overreach, McMorris Rodgers, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to provide a list of pending and expected rulemakings, and the congressional authorizations therefor. Rosenworcel responded earlier this month in a letter released with the congresswoman’s original correspondence.

The Washington Republican wrote that the Biden administration has been overly reliant on executive orders and cited recent Supreme Court precedent as evidence. McMorris Rodgers highlighted the Environmental Protection Agency’s loss in West Virginia v. EPA, in which the Court invoked the “major questions doctrine,” a legal doctrine limiting of the executive branch’s ability to permissively interpret Congress’s statutory language. She also referenced the Court’s rejection of the Center for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s vaccine or testing mandate.

“Our founders provided Congress with legislative authority to ensure lawmaking is done by elected officials, not unaccountable bureaucrats,” McMorris Rodgers wrote.

“I assure you the Committee and its members will exercise our robust investigative and legislative powers to not only forcefully reassert our Article I responsibilities, but to ensure the FCC under Democrat leadership does not continue to exceed Congressional authorizations,” she added.

Is net neutrality coming back?

In April 2021, McMorris Rodgers co-signed a letter with numerous congresspeople urging Rosenworcel to reject net neutrality, a policy supported by the chairwoman.

Today’s FCC is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, one commissioner short of the standard five. President Joe Biden nominated Gigi Sohn for the fifth spot, but her nomination is stalled due to Republican opposition in the Senate. Since Sohn supports net neutrality, some experts believe the FCC may once again pursue the policy should Sohn be confirmed.

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Expert Opinion

Johnny Kampis: Democrats Needlessly Push Another Round of Net Neutrality Legislation

The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act may harm the ability of broadband infrastructure to grow.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Johnny Kampis, director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

It ain’t broke, but Democrats keep trying to “fix” it.

July 28 saw the introduction of a bill to reimplement Title II regulations on broadband providers, paving the way for a second attempt at “net neutrality” rules for the internet.

Led by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., along with co-sponsors Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., the comically named Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act would classify ISPs as common carriers and give the Federal Communications Commission significant power to regulate internet issues such as pricing, competition, and consumer privacy.

Markey claims that the deregulation of the internet under former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai left broadband consumers unprotected. But as data has shown, and Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s own investigation highlighted, no widespread throttling, blocking or other consumer harm occurred after the Title II rules were repealed.

Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, noted after Markey’s bill was released that nearly all service providers’ terms of service contain legally enforceable commitments to not block or throttle the access of their subscribers to lawful content.

Markey said his legislation, which would codify broadband access as an essential service, will equip the FCC with the tools it needs to increase broadband accessibility.

The country already has the tools it needs to close the digital divide, with billions in taxpayer dollars flowing to every state to boost broadband access. For example, less than $10 billion in federal funding was dedicated to broadband in 2019, but an incredible $127 billion-plus in taxpayer dollars will be dedicated to closing the digital divide in the coming years. That doesn’t even count the nearly $800 billion in COVID-19 relief and stimulus funding that could be used for multiple issues, including broadband growth.

The bill’s proponents say that the FCC can foster a more competitive market with the passage of the legislation. FCC’s data already indicate the market is extremely competitive, with 99 percent of the U.S. population able to choose between at least two broadband providers. That doesn’t even account for wireless carriers and their rapid development of 5G.

The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act may instead harm the ability of broadband infrastructure to grow without funneling even more taxpayer money toward the cause. Studies have shown that private provider investment increased after the regulatory uncertainty of Title II rules were removed. Prior to the reversal of the 2015 Open Internet Order, broadband network investment dropped more than 5.6 percent, the first decline outside of a recession, the FCC reported.

US Telecom reported that capital expenditures by ISPs totalled $79.4 billion in 2020 and grew to $86.1 billion in 2021.

Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, called the issue of net neutrality “an increasingly stale debate” with justifications for it that “seem increasingly limp.”

“In the wake of the once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure bill, we need to be focused collectively on closing the digital divide and not taking a ride on the net neutrality carousel for the umpteenth time for no discernable reason,” he said. “Building broadband to unserved parts of this country is a massive, complex, and expensive undertaking. Slapping an outdated and burdensome regulatory regime on broadband networks surely will damage the mission to deploy next-generation internet technology throughout America and get everyone connected.”

Again, the specter of Title II regulations rears its ugly head for no discernible reason other than the government’s insatiable need for control. The broadband market has proven itself as a market that functions better with a light-touch approach, so we hope that Congress says not to this misguided bill.

Johnny Kampis is director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Net Neutrality

Democrats Seek to Codify Net Neutrality as Fifth FCC Commissioner Hangs

Some say the bill would add heavy regulation that will harm investments and consumers.

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Photo of Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) during virtual press conference on Thursday

WASHINGTON, August 1, 2022 – Democratic Senators introduced Thursday a bill that would enshrine into law the concept of net neutrality, which would prevent internet service providers from tinkering with internet traffic, in a move that comes ahead of midterm elections that could alter whether the Federal Communications Commission gets its Democratic fifth commissioner to take unilateral action on the matter.

The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act would give the FCC regulatory authority over broadband by classifying those services as Title II as defined in the 1934 Communications Act. Under Title II, the FCC would have greater regulatory muscle to make providers respect the principle of common carriage – that is, the traffic on their networks will not be throttled, sped up or given preference. Under the current light touch Title I – which was reinstituted by the 2017 commission under chairman Ajit Pai – the FCC does not have that authority, and the commission has previously been blocked by courts to bring net neutrality under Title I.

“My legislation would reverse the damaging approach adopted by the Trump FCC, which left broadband access unregulated, and consumers unprotected. It would give the FCC the tools it needs to protect the free and open internet, creating a just broadband future for everyone in our country,” Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., said during a virtual press conference hosted by Public Knowledge on Thursday.

Markey noted that the majority of Americans and Republicans favor restoring net neutrality rules in the country.

Public Knowledge, an advocacy group for an open internet, was co-founded by Gigi Sohn, who was nominated by President Joe Biden to be the fifth FCC commissioner. The vote to confirm in the Senate has not happened yet, as some Republicans have complained about Sohn’s ability to be impartial on the commission.

“We’ve gone 544 days into the Biden administration without a fully functional agency. It’s time for Senate leadership to end this senseless delay and get the agency back to full capacity,” said Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at Free Press Action, in a press release welcoming the bill.

Reintroduction of bill comes as Sohn’s nomination to FCC appears to falter 

Sohn, who would be the party tiebreaker on the commission, would have bolstered the FCC’s chance to press for a reclassification of broadband services under Title II. But the longer a vote is not held, the less optimistic some say they are getting that a vote will be held before a midterm election in November that could flip the Senate red.

“Confirmation is still possible, but with the extended August recess and looming midterm election, there aren’t a lot of legislative days to get the job done,” said former FCC Chairman Richard Wiley at an event late last month.

Republican Commissioner Nathan Simington previously said that he would welcome congressional action on net neutrality – instead of an FCC vote on it.

“I have previously stated that the FCC’s 2015 Net Neutrality rules were the right approach,” said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in a press release. “That approach is undergirded by a voluminous record and overwhelming public support, and it has been tested in court. The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act would codify just that,”

The bill comes after FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has repeatedly said that she believes net neutrality should be the guiding principle for the internet economy. Rosenworcel was defiant in her support of the principle in response to a letter from Republican representatives who encouraged her not to change her mind on it.

She added in a statement after the bill’s introduction that despite the FCC having the authority it needs to implement net neutrality, “legislation that helps ensure it is the law of the land is welcome.”

“For anyone who wants more innovation, more voices and less corporate control of the internet, net neutrality is an absolute no-brainer,” said Ron Wyden, D-OR, who co-introduced the bill. In 2018, Verizon admitted to throttling the wireless speeds used by California firefighters who were working on a large fire – one of the examples used to illustrate the imposition of such rules.

As such, California has gone its own way in lieu of inaction from Washington. The state won a court battle this year from broadband industry that challenged its own net neutrality law. The law made AT&T pull free sponsored applications to residents.

Critics of the net neutrality measure from the broadband industry

But broadband service providers and the commission that reversed net neutrality rules don’t see it that way. They say that regulations imposed by a net neutrality framework hinders innovation and competition in the market – including being able to provide free access to certain applications.

Michael Powell, CEO of trade association NCTA, said this bill will have a negative effect on closing the digital divide.

“In the wake of the once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure bill, we need to be focused collectively on closing the digital divide and not taking a ride on the net neutrality carousel for the umpteenth time for no discernable reason,” he said.

“Slapping an outdated and burdensome regulatory regime on broadband networks surely will damage the mission to deploy next-generation internet technology throughout America and get everyone connected,” said Powell.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association also came out against the bill, saying heavy regulation would hamper their ability to serve underserved areas of the country. “The bill’s Title II requirements would create real threats to their ongoing viability,” the release said.

“Net neutrality may be a mixed bag, but common carrier regulation would inhibit competition, private investment and innovation, and further confound the complex task of eradicating the digital divide,” it added.

Another trade group USTelecom said it is concerned such regulation would hamper investments in broadband networks. “There is bipartisan support for net neutrality, but legislative proposals that would put any of this progress at risk are not the right answer,” said CEO Jonathan Spalter in a release. “Let’s keep our focus on moving consumers’ internet experiences forward, not backward.”

Non-profit research institution the Free State Foundation added that this type of bill will impose heavy-handed regulation that will harm consumers.

“[T]here is no present evidence, and there hasn’t been any for years, that ISPs have engaged in any deliberate discriminatory conduct,” said the FSF in a press release. “Almost all ISPs’ terms of service contain legally enforceable commitments not to block or throttle subscribers’ access to lawful content.

“To the extent that a couple of old incidents are cited that conceivably would run afoul of stringent anti-discrimination prohibitions, they have been isolated and quickly remedied,” the FSF added. “That’s why the net neutrality advocates are left to conjecture about what ‘might,’ ‘could,’ or ‘possibly’ happen absent new regulation, rather than identifying any existing problem warranting costly new regulatory mandates.”

With reporting by Riley Haight.

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