Net Neutrality: Washington's Chance at a Bi-Partisan Win-Win Solution

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By Rick Boucher

Rick Boucher served in the US House for 28 years and chaired the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. He is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) and head of the government strategies practice at the law firm Sidley Austin.

Net neutrality. It's the longest standing communications policy debate of the 21st Century, and a decade after it started, it's still raging and far from resolved.

I share these observations as a Democrat and long-standing supporter of strong network neutrality protections and as a deeply involved participant in the writing of the Communications Act of 1996.

I'm motivated by a desire to put this controversy to rest on terms that would allow both Democrats and Republicans to declare victory and realize their main policy objectives and, coincidentally, strongly benefit the public interest.

Title II Vulnerability 

First, why do I say that the controversy is far from resolved? After all, in the name of network neutrality protection, the FCC just reclassified broadband as a Title II common carrier service. Doesn't reclassification of broadband resolve the controversy and assure network neutrality protection?

Actually, no. It has only escalated the controversy and jeopardized the future for net neutrality guarantees. In fact, reclassification of broadband is perhaps the most tenuous federal agency decision in recent memory given that it suffers from severe potential legal infirmities and enormous political risk.

I'll be specific.

First, the FCC's reclassification order is legally vulnerable. For starters, it flies in the face of the Communications Act of ‘96. In that law, we specifically created the category of “information services” to ensure that Internet service providers who use telecommunications to make information available to the public will not be subject to monopoly-style regulation designed for the era of wired telephones. Until this year's reclassification decision, the FCC had consistently treated Internet access as an information service. Suddenly, the FCC has now reversed ground, ignored years of precedent and reclassified broadband as a telecommunications service so that it can protect network neutrality through telephone regulations descended from the 1930s.

The courts do not look kindly on abrupt agency reversals where long-held interpretations are suddenly thrown out the window without a clear indication of changed circumstances warranting the regulatory about-face. In this case, the underlying facts have not changed, and consistent with judicial precedent, the courts will hold the FCC's feet to the fire on its decision to ignore and reverse a long-standing interpretation that defines broadband as an “information service.”

The courts will also examine the FCC's deficient notice prior to the rule change, in which the agency failed to put a possible reclassification at the center of its rulemaking proceeding. That shortcoming may well have deprived interested parties of the opportunity to provide informed comments and presents a very real legal risk that the FCC's decision will be overturned.

Avoidance of Political Risk 

Yet, the ultimate risk to the FCC's net neutrality decision may be political. Current polling indicates roughly a 50 percent chance that a Republican will win the presidency next year. If that happens, the FCC would revert to a three-to-two Republican majority, and it's virtually certain that a new Republican FCC would return to the classification of broadband as an information service. Network neutrality protections would be lost, and philosophically the Republicans would have little interest in finding an alternate means to continue them.

The FCC's reclassification order rests on a bed of sand, but one thing it has done is open the door to a legislative opportunity for Democrats to achieve their long-held goal of statutory permanence for network neutrality protections.

During the telecom debates of the past decade, Republicans have consistently opposed net neutrality legislation. Now, in the interest of obtaining lighter regulatory treatment for broadband as an information service, Republicans have signaled their willingness to enshrine meaningful network neutrality protections in a statute in return for not applying common carrier regulation to the Internet.

By accepting the Republican offer, Congressional Democrats would achieve their long-held goal of statutory permanence for network neutrality in exchange for a return of broadband to the information services status it has enjoyed since its inception for all but a few months of this year. Net neutrality guarantees would be virtually immune from legal challenge and far removed from political risk.

Why wouldn't Democrats want to take advantage of this unique opportunity? It's a true compromise: net neutrality regulations in statute, enforceable by the FCC, in exchange for a return to information services regulatory treatment of broadband, also in statute, as Republicans want. There's no reason not to take the deal for either party and also thereby remind the FCC that no matter which party controls it, Congress is the ultimate arbiter of telecom policy.

The issues are crystallized. For the moment, both Democrats and Republicans enjoy roughly equal leverage, and each can give to the other the thing it wants the most. In that circumstance, even in a Congress not prone to legislating, the passage of a law is clearly possible.

As a Democrat and network neutrality proponent, this is a deal I hope the Democrats will accept.