Tuesday, January 14, 2014

FCC's Net Neutrality Rules Vacated - Are They Needed?

A Federal appeals court has vacated the FCC's most recent attempt to impose "Net Neutrality" rules, ruling that the FCC overstepped its formal authority in creating the rules in the first case.  While some public interest groups expressed shock and outrage, the ruling was hardly unexpected.  After all, the Federal courts had made essentially the same ruling on the FCC's first set of "Net Neutrality" rules, which the FCC promptly ignored in pushing forth the second set, using essentially the same argument despite some language changes.

So what does this mean?  Well, the special interest group "FreePress" says this could be the end of the Internet as we know it.  But what the end of the current "Net Neutrality" rules (which were largely stayed and unenforced during court proceedings) means is that we're back to the Internet as we know it - the goal of the rules was to change how the Internet worked, after all.  But "FreePress" is right in its call for the FCC to do it right the next time - to actually work within its existing authority, or to seek additional authority from Congress if needed, rather than creating a regulatory framework by administrative fiat (sadly a widespread habit within this administration).

As I've posted before (here and here), I've been skeptical of the need for the currently expressed vision of "Network Neutrality" as preventing ISPs, operators, etc. from discriminating against content (thus sticking it to the "evil" and "greedy" cable and telecomm operators).  Under the historic common carrier regulatory framework for telecommunications, operators could not refuse to offer services or discriminate among users on a content basis.  But the FCC had identified ISPs as information services, which were not subject to common carrier regulation.  While common carrier status was, strictly speaking, a basis of telephone FCC regulation and not computer communications (or information services), I think the common carrier argument is easily extensible since the two networks are essentially converged today.  Redefining ISPs as telecomm common carriers may well take some time and a fair bit of legal wrangling - but would provide the regulatory authority that the FCC needs to prevent unfair discrimination in service.

That may not be enough for some Net Neutrality proponents, who would like to also prevent operators from offering additional services (guaranteed speeds, etc.) at different prices.  That's more problematic in my mind, limiting exploration and diffusion of new services and content - not to mention making it impossible to cross-subsidize services and enable additional infrastructure investment, things that have helped users.

And you also have to worry about the end game of absolute equality - which inevitably can be achieved only at the lowest common denominator.  Do we want a rule that insists that all ISPs and telco operators can only offer one level of service at low prices - at whatever speeds are universally available in the national grid?

So FCC, if you're going to push for Internet regulatory authority and actually try to regulate normal operations, please try to do so correctly.  With proper authority, and with due consideration of that the actual impact of your regulations will be (rather than the political goals you hope to achieve).

Sources -  Verdict: Net Neutrality is Dead... for now,  FreePress.net
Federal appeals court strikes down net neutrality rules, Washington Post

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