Obama's first FCC boss Julius Genachowski was a bit of a wishy washy mess, supporting any number of conflicting ideas at any given time depending on the audience he was talking to. And while his second term pick, Tom Wheeler, initially raised eyebrows given his history of lobbying for early-era telecom companies, he wound up being one of the better FCC bosses in agency history. Granted telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast might disagree, since he was one of the only FCC bosses in recent history actually willing to stand up to them in any meaningful way.
Last week, a court (mostly) sided with the FCC in its repeal of Wheeler-era net neutrality rules. That said, the court also blocked FCC attempts to ban states from passing their own net neutrality rules, meaning the fight has simply shifted to the state level. In an overlooked piece over at the NY Times, Wheeler (who has been relatively quiet post tenure as his efforts are slowly demolished one by one in the Trump era) notes how ISPs will likely try to behave so long as the threat of state action remains:
"But the ruling did keep net neutrality alive — by overruling the agency’s claim that it could pre-empt state governments from setting out their own net neutrality requirements. The decision opens the doors for states to fill the regulatory void. Internet service providers should be quaking in their boots: As of today, they run the serious risk that they’ll have to follow a patchwork of different state requirements. The companies may not have liked the previous administration’s decision to classify them as common carriers, but that at least provided them with a uniform national policy. That is now gone."
ISPs really enjoy complaining (and will certainly be doing a lot more of it in the future) that they now have to adhere to a universe of state-level protections. But the reality is they created the problem by lobbying to kill pretty modest federal guidelines (using fraudulent data and bogus people, it should be noted). Now instead of a unified set of FCC rules (which didn't even ban problematic behavior like the abuse of usage caps as a competitive weapon), they'll have to adhere to tougher guidelines in states like California.
The FCC ban on state efforts was an integral part of Comcast/AT&T/Verizon's dream of zero meaningful oversight and, without it, it's not much of an actual victory, notes Wheeler's former advisor Gigi Sohn:
Here's the problem for those saying that @FCC could pre-empt state #netneutrality laws - the FCC cannot at the same time abandon its authority to regulate & also tell the states it cannot do so. Exactly what federal law or rule would pre-empt the state law? There isn't one.
— Gigi Sohn (@gigibsohn) October 1, 2019
As such, the court ruling leaves the door open to net neutrality in several ways. One, states can now jump in and protect consumers. Two, the court ruling made it clear the FCC was within its authority to both pass the 2015 rules and repeal them, meaning a future FCC can simply pass the same (or better) rules all over again. And while it's unlikely under this current telecom-cash-slathered Congress, a future Congress could pass legislation (like the 3 page Save the Internet Act, which simply restores the FCC's 2015 rules) that puts meaningful rules in place permanently.
In other words, it ain't over until it's over. And every survey in existence shows that US consumers want some kind of protections in place. Disdain for anti-competitive giants is bipartisan and fairly universal. Eventually big ISPs like Comcast and AT&T won't be able to help themselves (AT&T's already quietly pushing its luck on this front), and their behaviors will only lead to even more public support for meaningful open internet rules.
Filed Under: ajit pai, fcc, net neutrality, states, states rights, tom wheeler