It's a historic day for the internet. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just passed the strongest net neutrality rules in this country's history. This is great news! But let me repeat: The battle for net neutrality is still not over. In a sense, the real battle begins now.
Now that the vote is in, a number of parties—namely cable companies and Republicans in Congress—are going to challenge the FCC's authority in an attempt to push these rules under the rug. That's what Verizon did in 2011, the last time the agency passed strong net neutrality rules, and it's all but certain that cable companies will try to do it again. Meanwhile, the Republican-led Congress might intervene with a net neutrality bill that would curtail the FCC's ruling, but that prospect seems less likely in the wake of the their inability to get such a bill together before today's vote.
So how will the private sector respond? Big telecom companies have made it dreadfully clear that they do not like the FCC's new net neutrality rules. These rules reclassify the internet under Title II of the Telecommunications Act and forbid bad things like paid prioritization (also known as "fast lanes"), website blocking, and traffic throttling. These restrictions are good for consumers, but bad for cable company profits.
So there are going to be some lawsuits. AT&T more or less promised to sue earlier this month when it seemed like the FCC would take Obama's excellent advice and reclassify the internet. The company said in a blog post that those who didn't think the FCC should yield to compromise "are only deceiving themselves." Meanwhile, the cable lobby has also made it very clear that they want to challenge the rules in court as well.
"I think it's just too dramatic, too serious a change not to ask the court to review the propriety of what the commission did particularly when so much of it rests on whether it had the authority to do it in the first place," Michael Powell, president and chief executive of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, told The Washington Post recently. Too dramatic, too serious a change.
Long story short, there will be a lot of lawsuits. Even the small cable companies are going to sue.
We've long known that Congress could intervene in this whole process. That could be a good thing for the open internet, but it looks like it's going to be a bad thing. Republicans in Congress have hinted at such an outcome. Alarmists like Ted Cruz have called the FCC's new rules "Obamacare for the internet," a take that's not only dumb but also dangerous. Others say that the government is going to start setting the price for internet service. This is not true.
Take bad boy Fred Upton, for instance. Upton—who holds personal investments in AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon—has introduced legislation that prohibit things like paid prioritization but also eliminate the agency's authority to regulate internet service providers. This is a dangerous thing for these net neutrality rules, again, because in the 2011 Verizon lawsuit that killed the FCC's old net neutrality rules, a judge ruled that the agency overstepped its authority. "A legislative answer to the net neutrality question will finally put to rest years of litigation and uncertainty," Upton said recently.
Upton's contemporaries have talked up the court challenges, too. Texas Republican Joe Barton calls the new rules "net nonsense." (Very cute, Joe.) At a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Barton run his mouth about the FCC's new rules. "It's not going to work," he said. "It is going to be tested in court and it's going to fail in court."
Of course, this remains to be seen. The rules will be challenged in court, and Congress will consider Upton's legislation. That's a little bit anxiety-inducing if you love the internet.
So, like we've said before, it's not quite time for the we-saved-the-internet parade. It's definitely time to take a deep breath and accept the fact that things are heading in the right direction. Challenges abound. But we're on a good path to a better internet. Finally.
Image by Michael Hession
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