The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just released its final rules on how they will regulate the internet. You know, the rules they voted to pass several weeks ago. Better late than never, I guess.
To the surprise of no one, the rules comprise a monstrous 400 pages that no one in their right mind would ever read through. I am in my right mind, or at least I like to think I am, but I did take the time to take a look at the executive summary. A couple of things jumped out at me.
All along, the FCC has been trying to ease skeptics’ worries by promising to use broad “forbearance.” In other words, they claim they will not actually enforce most of the powers they insisted on granting themselves.
Setting aside for a moment the complete absurdity of such a claim – when has a government agency ever functionally limited its own power? – the FCC explicitly says that they will not forbear many of the most important and dangerous provisions in the Telecommunications Act.
After boldly boasting of “broad forbearance” and “a light-touch regulatory framework,” the Commission’s report immediately clarifies that the following sections of Title II of the Telecommunications Act will be enforced: Section 201, 202, 208, 214, 222, 224, 225, 251, 254, 255, and Section 706 from another part of the Act. Additionally, the FCC will not forbear from enforcement mechanisms present in Section 206, 207, 209, 216, and 217.
“Light touch,” indeed.
Let’s look at what some of those sections specifically do. Section 201, the main part of the law the FCC claims is necessary to enforce Net Neutrality, says that any provider is obligated to provide service on the Commission’s terms, whenever they deem it to be “in the public interest.” That’s a pretty vague term that could allow the FCC to make any number of demands on providers, and force them to comply.
Section 208 should be particularly troubling to anyone concerned about competition. It allows anyone to file a legal complaint with a provider without having to show that they have suffered any damages whatsoever. It’s understandable that no one is worried about Comcast having to defend itself against lawsuits, but what if Comcast is the one filing the complaint? Under Section 208, a large, established firm could file any number of nuisance complaints against a new, smaller competitor, forcing them to spend time and money defending themselves until ultimately succumbing. Section 208 effectively provides a legal framework for large companies to bully smaller ones out of existence.
And then there’s Section 706, which allows the FCC to demand deployment of broadband services to rural areas or in public schools. When the market doesn’t demand or support such expansion, the price will have to be borne by someone, and that someone is you. Higher broadband costs can be the only result of these regulations.
Anyone who expected a “light touch” from the government’s efforts to regulate the internet should be sobered and dismayed by the FCC’s 400 pages of rules. Fortunately, legal battles are being mounted and some of the biggest supporters of Net Neutrality are already beginning to change their tune.
The battle for internet freedom is not over, and we’re going to keep fighting to preserve the biggest driver of freedom and innovation since the printing press.