Chief Judge to FCC lawyer: “How do you want to lose?”

If a recent oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is any guide, the FCC may have a tough time imposing its proposed network neutrality policies. Unless Congress steps in to give it a hand.

The case (argued on January 8) arose from complaints that Comcast’s Internet service had deliberately and selectively interfered with BitTorrent file-sharing services. Comcast claimed it was just managing traffic on the network; opponents suspected Comcast of trying to shield the parent company’s cable operations from competition.

The FCC sided with the complainants. It did not fine Comcast, but imposed conditions intended to ensure that the practice had ended. Read the details here.

Comcast brought an appeal to the D.C. Circuit, raising two main grounds: (1) the FCC had no actual rule in place prohibiting what Comcast did (due process argument); and (2) the FCC could not have had such a rule because it lacks authority over an Internet provider’s handling of content (jurisdictional argument).

While it is always risky to predict the outcome of a case on the basis of oral argument, things look bad for the FCC – not only as to the Comcast case, but also in regards to its stated goal of adopting network neutrality rules.

The judges seemed to feed “softballs” to the attorney for Comcast, while giving the FCC lawyer a much harder time. We noted three particularly telling moments:

  • The Chief Judge asking the FCC lawyer, “How would you prefer to lose – [on due process or on jurisdiction]?”
  • Another judge pointedly asking the FCC lawyer, “Are there any limits” to the FCC’s jurisdictional claim? The lawyer seemed unable to come up with an answer that both satisfied the court and squared with his own theory.
  • The Chief Judge remarking, “The impact of our decision [on the FCC’s pending network neutrality rules] will be perfectly clear,” in a context suggesting the court expects to undercut the FCC’s ability to adopt those rules.

But even if the FCC loses this case, it would be a mistake to suppose that marks the end of network neutrality. There are two points to remember.

First, the FCC believes it has a decent argument for jurisdiction based on the Supreme Court’s Brand X decision, which has language supporting the FCC’s authority to regulate at least some aspects of Internet service.  The Comcast court appeared uninterested in hearing about Brand X. But the FCC could ask the Supreme Court to rule in its favor under that precedent.

Second, a loss here on jurisdictional grounds will be an invitation to Congress to step in and give the FCC whatever authority it needs to impose network neutrality. Recent congressional proposals have been a lot tougher than the FCC’s proposed rules.

Either way, an FCC loss in this court will only set off the next stage of the dispute.