Filling a Regulatory Void

Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the net neutrality regulations enacted by California. The appeal case was filed on behalf of big ISPs by ACA Connect, CTIA, NCTA, and USTelecom.

The case stems from the California net naturality legislation passed in 2018. The California law was a direct reaction to the Ajit Pai FCC that not only killed federal net neutrality rules but also wiped out most federal regulation of broadband. The California legislation made it clear that the State doesn’t want ISPs to have an unfettered ability for bad behavior.

The California net neutrality rules are straightforward. The law applies to both landline and mobile broadband. Specifically, the California net neutrality law:

  • Prohibits ISPs from blocking lawful content.
  • Prohibits ISPs from impairing or degrading lawful Internet traffic except as is necessary for reasonable network management.
  • Prohibits ISPs from requiring compensation, monetary or otherwise, from edge providers (companies like Netflix or Google) for delivering Internet traffic or content.
  • Prohibits paid prioritization.
  • Prohibits zero-rating.
  • Prohibits interference with an end user’s ability to select content, applications, services, or devices.
  • Requires the full and accurate public disclosure of network management practices, performance, and clearly worded terms of service.
  • Prohibits ISPs from offering any product that evades any of the above prohibitions.

This is an interesting step in the battle to regulate ISPs. The big ISPs put a huge amount of money and effort into getting the FCC under Ajit Pai to kill federal broadband regulation. There has been a long-standing tradition in the telecom world that cedes that the FCC has the power to make federal rules, but states have always been free to regulate issues not mandated by the FCC. There have been some tussles over the years between states and the FCC, but courts have consistently sided with the FCC’s authority to make national rules. When the FCC walked away from most broadband regulation it created a regulatory void that tradition would imply that states are allowed to fill.

Losing this court case creates a huge dilemma for big ISPs. California is such a large part of the economy that it would be hard for ISPs to follow this law in California and not follow it elsewhere. It also seems likely that other states will now pass similar laws over the next few years, and that will create the worst possible nightmare for big ISPs – different regulations in different states.

I’ve always adhered to the belief that there is a regulatory pendulum. When regulations get too tough for a regulated industry, there is usually a big push to lighten the regulatory burden. But when the pendulum swings the other way and regulation gets too slack, there is inevitably a big push to put more restrictions on the industry being regulated. In this case, the ISPs and Ajit Pai went too far by eliminating most meaningful federal broadband regulation. There is nothing surprising about California and other states reacting to the lack of federal regulation.

With this court decision, there is nothing to stop a dozen states from creating net neutrality rules or tackling the other regulations that got voided by the Ajit Pai FCC. It’s also not hard to predict that the big ISPs will now push to create a watered-down federal version of net neutrality as a way to override a plethora of state rules.

I said earlier that this is a dilemma for large ISPs because it is extremely rare and not easy for a small ISP to violate net neutrality principles. The California rules will require ISPs to create more plain English terms of service, but otherwise, small ISPs in California will not likely be bothered by any of these rules.

For the big ISPs, this is a harsh reminder that the regulatory pendulum always swings back. It’s not hard to envision celebration behind the scenes at the big ISPs when they convinced the FCC to give them everything on their wish list. But when regulations get out of balance, there is inevitably pushback in the other direction.

There is still one piece of unfinished business in this case. There is still an open issue in the court examining if the California law impinges on interstate commerce. But the Ninth Circuit’s ruling made it clear that California is free to enforce its version of net neutrality within the state.