In the days and weeks following the midterm elections, the news has gotten steadily better. Undecided House races have been called for the Democrats; statehouses across the country have turned blue; and according to a couple of tweets from Nate Silver, the Democrats got as many votes in the midterms as Trump got in the Presidential election.
The news may also be good for Net Neutrality. According to the Brookings Institution, a combination of the Democrats’ win and a Supreme Court decision may restore non-discrimination rules to the Internet.
On November 5, the Supreme Court declined to review the decision of the D.C. Circuit Court that twice upheld the 2015 Open Internet Rule. The industry groups that had long opposed non-discriminatory access to broadband networks had previously stopped such regulation at the D.C. Circuit. When they attempted the same thing with regard to the 2015 decision of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a three-judge panel ruled the FCC’s favor. The industry then appealed the panel’s decision to the entire D.C. Circuit and lost again. The industry then appealed that loss to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court voted 4-3 (with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh abstaining) to deny a writ of certiorari for the appeal. As a result, the lower court’s decision upholding the 2015 Open Internet Rule stands.
The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet decision declared broadband providers to be Telecommunications Services subject to the common carrier requirements of Title II of the Communications Act. Just like the telegraph and telephone companies that preceded them, internet service providers could not discriminate among those using the network. They could not, for instance, break the internet into fast lanes and slow lanes depending on how much a content provider such as Netflix paid them.
It will not surprise you to learn that in 2017, Trump’s FCC repealed the Open Internet Rule, and ruled that the agency had only minimal authority over internet networks. Under Trump’s FCC chief, former Verizon honcho Ajit Pai, the Commission announced it would exercise no oversight over internet access.
As former FCC chair Tom Wheeler explains, not only did the agency created by Congress to oversee the nation’s networks walk away from that responsibility, it joined the plaintiffs in asking the Supreme Court to overrule the D.C. Circuit’s 2015 decision.
The High Court declined to do so.
Add to that encouraging development the fact that Democrats will control the House of Representatives.
House Democratic leaders from presumptive Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA,) to the new Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee Frank Pallone (D-NJ), to the new Chairman of the Telecommunications Subcommittee Mike Doyle (D-PA) have all been vocal supporters of strong net neutrality rules.
Reps. Pallone and Doyle will be able to conduct oversight hearings into the activities of Trump’s FCC, and on the effect of eliminating the Open Internet Rule.
Since meaningful new legislation is highly unlikely, given the GOP Senate and Trump’s threatened veto, the Supreme Court’s refusal to overturn the Open Internet Rule means non-discrimination might survive anyway.
I say “might” because the D.C. Circuit will hear arguments in February in the lawsuit challenging the FCC’s elimination of the Open Internet Rule. If the Circuit Court rules against the FCC, the 2015 Open Internet Rule is reinstated—and the Supreme Court has declined to consider the matter, at least for now.
In their zeal to gut oversight of their activities, the internet networks and their Trump FCC allies may have shot themselves in the foot. There is a strong case that the Trump FCC acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner when it repealed the 2015 Open Internet Rule and walked away from any responsibility over the most important network of the 21st century. If the D.C. Circuit makes such a finding, net neutrality would once again be the law of the land. Although the Trump FCC would probably spitefully ignore its enforcement and even force adoption of a new rule to free the broadband companies, that action would simply bolster the Democrats in the House.
Research suggests that an overwhelming majority of Americans favor retention of Net Neutrality.
I favor neutering Ajit Pai.