New Net Neutrality Legislation

On February 7, as hearings were being held on net neutrality, Congressional Republicans said they were going to offer up three different versions of a bill intended to reinstate net neutrality principles. The newest bill, the Open Internet Act of 2019, was introduced by Rep Bob Latta of Ohio. They also offered up bills previously introduced by Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon and Sen John Thune of South Dakota.

All three bills would reestablish rules against ISP blocking web traffic, throttling customers or implementing paid-prioritization, which has been referred to as creating fast lanes that give some web traffic prioritization over other traffic. Hanging over all of these bills is a court review of a challenge of the FCC’s right to kill net neutrality – a successful challenge would reinstate the original FCC net neutrality rules. There are also a number of states poised to introduce their own net neutrality rules should the court challenge fail.

The court case and the threat of state net neutrality rules are prodding Congress to enact net neutrality legislation. Legislation has always been the preferred solution for imposing any major changes in regulation. When there’s no legislation, then rules like net neutrality are subject to being changed every time there is a new FCC or a new administration. Nobody in the country benefits – not ISPs and not citizens – when policies like net neutrality change every time there is a new administration.

These three bills were clearly influenced by the big ISPs. They include nearly the identical talking points that are being promoted by NCTA, the lobbying arm of the largest ISPs, headed by ex-FCC Commissioner Michael Powell. There are two primary differences in these bills and the original net neutrality rules that were established by the last FCC.

The first is a provision that the legislation would allow the ISPs to stray from the net neutrality principles if there is a ‘public benefit’ from doing so. That would allow ISPs to adopt any web practice they want as long as they can concoct a story about how the practice creates a public benefit. Since there are winners and losers from almost any network practice of ISPs, it wouldn’t be hard to identify those that benefit from a given practice. From a regulatory perspective, this is as close as we can come to a joke. If a regulated entity gets to decide when a regulation applies, then it’s not really a regulation.

The other big difference from the proposed legislation and the original net neutrality order is the lack of what is called a ‘general conduct standard’. The original net neutrality order understood that the Internet is a rapidly evolving and that any specific rules governing Internet behavior would be obsolete almost as soon as they are enacted. ISPs and the other big players on the web are able to design ways around almost any imaginable legislative rules.

The original net neutrality order took the tactic of establishing the three basic net neutrality principles but didn’t provide any specific direction on how the FCC was supposed to enforce them. The concept of the general conduct standard is that the FCC will look at each bad practice of an ISP to see if it violates the net neutrality principles. Any FCC ruling would thus be somewhat narrow, except that a ruling against a specific ISP practice would generally apply to others doing the same thing.

The original net neutrality order envisioned a cycle where the FCC rules against bad practices and the ISPs then try to find another way to get what they want – so there would be a continuous cycle of ISPs introducing questionable behavior with the FCC deciding each time if the new practice violates the intent of the net neutrality principles. This was a really clever solution for trying to regulate an industry that changes as quickly as the ISP and web world.

The proposed legislation does away with the general conduct standard. That means that the FCC would not have the ability to judge specific ISP behavior as meeting or not meeting the net neutrality standards. This would take all of the teeth out of net neutrality rules since the FCC would have little authority to ban specific bad practices. This was summarized most succinctly by former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler who testified in the recent Congressional hearings that if Congress established net neutrality rules it ought to allow for “a referee on the field with the ability to throw the flag for unjust and unreasonable activity.”

The bottom line is that the proposed legislation would reintroduce the basic tenets of net neutrality but would give the FCC almost no authority to enforce the rules. It’s impossible to imagine these bills being passed by a divided Congress, so we’re back to waiting on the Courts or perhaps on states trying to regulate net neutrality on their own – meaning a long-term muddled period of regulatory uncertainty.