A U.S. appeals court ruled last week that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not have the authority to interfere with the Internet’s operation via Net neutrality regulations. This is a big win for consumers, but the forces that want to control the Net have vowed to continue their quest.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski championed the creation of “Net neutrality” regulations designed to prevent ISPs such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast from managing the flow of traffic on their networks. Supporters of such government interference say they are trying to protect the “openness” of the Internet, because they are worried that broadband providers might block or slow down traffic from certain sites.
It’s true that, in 2007, Comcast degraded the service it provided to a small group of customers using BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer application that uses a lot of bandwidth. However, due to customer complaints and negative press, Comcast voluntarily stopped the practice before the FCC even had a chance to act. Despite the ability of the market to solve such issues on its own, “public advocates,” such as the left-leaning Public Knowledge, were successful in pushing the FCC to create rules, which the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has now rejected. This decision is a relief for a number of reasons.
First off, this ruling is a strong sign to the FCC to back off and let the Internet continue to create value, jobs, and other benefits for Americans. Unfortunately, the agency has a long history of attempting to overstep its boundaries, egged on by those who wish to control the Net’s infrastructure. As Adam Thierer of the Progress and Freedom Foundation put it this week, “The question now is whether the FCC learns its lesson – that it should seek the proper authority from Congress to impose new regulations like Net neutrality rules – or if the agency instead engages in another effort to concoct regulatory authority via regulatory classification.”
Second, scrapping the agency’s rules prevents a potential future where the Internet is smothered with burdensome regulations that waste energy – a situation the country has witnessed before. In the past, the FCC was allowed to heavily regulate telecommunications services, and the result was disastrous for innovation, resulting in loads of red tape and expensive and clunky services for consumers. Indeed, as a PRI study has pointed out, “in the telecommunications industry, such regulations were so damaging that a second wave of regulations was devised to undo the damage caused by the first.”
Despite these problems, some Democratic lawmakers continue down this path. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) made it clear that he’d like to see the rules reinstated.
“I know that Congress did not intend for cable and telephone broadband Internet service providers to fall outside the authority of the FCC to protect consumers,” he told the Wall Street Journal. What exactly the Senator thinks consumers need to be protected from is unclear, but there is no doubt that the push for greater government control over the Net won’t end here, even though it should. Indeed, a good case could be made that consumers need to be protected from “public advocates” who lobby for government to control what has become the primary means of communications for many Americans. That would be legislation well worth supporting.
The Internet is one of the few areas of the U.S. economy still thriving despite tough economic times and challenges. Movements to “fix” this engine of growth are either misguided or thinly veiled attempts to harness the Net for other agendas. The court was correct in rejecting plans to plaster the medium in red tape. The FCC should humbly accept this ruling and move on to other issues.