Looking for net neutrality authority at the FCC? You might be one letter off. 

[Blogmeister’s Note: CommLawBlog.com welcomes back guest blogger Catherine McCullough, principal of Meadowbrook Strategic Government Relations, a D.C. lobbying firm. We are pleased that Catherine has agreed to share with our readers her thoughts on how the Administration might deal with its Comcast problem.]

Across the post-Comcast playing field, the governmental players are staking out their positions on the question of who, if anybody, has the authority to enforce network neutrality.

A recent hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee provided examples: Chairman Rockefeller, emotionally describing how lack of service affected his constituents during the recent West Virginia coal-mining disaster, said he will put his considerable power behind writing a bill to give the FCC unambiguous authority to protect consumers; Ranking Member Hutchison – who doesn’t have the final say over any majority bill now, but whose party could hold all the cards if elections go Republicans’ way in November – warned the FCC that there would be consequences if it acted to reclassify.

And in an exercise I’ve seen repeated in that Committee room by other agency leaders, Chairman Genachowski stuck to his written testimony and gently tiptoed around the hard questions (like how the FCC might plan to make the National Broadband Plan a reality given the new hazy regulatory climate).

If you were Mr. Genachowski, how would you deal with the conundrum of network neutrality in the aftermath of Comcast?

You could take up Rockefeller’s suggestion and ask Congress to give the FCC express statutory authority. But there are downsides of going to Congress for a remedy: chairs could shift during the November elections, and besides – would you really want to risk opening the Communications Act to amendments (shot clock, anyone?) And let’s not forget about timing – you want the NBP to move ahead now, not at some indefinite future point, after the full range of Congressional process has managed to inch its way to some (unpredictable) conclusion at some point in the indefinite future.

Or you could take Hutchison up on her challenge and reclassify internet access as a Title II telecommunications service. But as many have observed, that would almost certainly lead back to court.

Or maybe, as Fletcher, Heald’s own Mitchell Lazarus has suggested, the FCC could find a more tailored way out.

Both of the last two options, however, involve the FCC re-jiggering its own legal authority from within – which risks potential punishment from the minority party (not a purely hypothetical risk, as Hutchison’s comments, noted above, demonstrate).

So what’s the answer?

If I were Mr. Genachowski, stuck between a legal rock and a political hard place, I might look for some other way out of the bind – a way that would permit regulation of net neutrality while keeping my agency both out of court and out of any politically costly cross-fire in Congress. If only I had a protector. Or in this case, a consumer protector. You see where I am going with this: I would consider handing off the net neutrality hot potato to my regulatory siblings at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The FTC can’t regulate common carriers. But so far ISPs aren’t common carriers, thanks to the FCC’s consistent reluctance thus far to so categorize them. And if ISPs aren’t common carriers, the FTC can step in. (See tech attorney Glenn Manishin’s analysis of Comcast on this point.)

Section 5(a) of the FTC Act gives the agency jurisdiction over “unfair or deceptive acts or practices”, and FTC Chairman Leibowitz has been willing in the past to assert jurisdiction in order to protect consumers.

Remember, dear Readers, Chairman Leibowitz has sunk significant political capital into asserting his agency’s power over online commerce issues and other consumer protection initiatives that are threatened if someone in the government can’t enforce net neutrality. So the FTC could be expected to welcome the authority to regulate ISPs and implement net neutrality.

And – just as politically important here – if the FTC were to be deemed the principal locus of control over the issue, Chairman Rockefeller and his Senate Commerce Committee – and their colleagues on the House side – would lose no power. The Commerce Committees have oversight authority over both the FCC and the FTC, so allowing one of the two agencies to take up regulation in an area – say, net neutrality – previously controlled by the other agency would not realign Congressional power in any way. All Chairman Rockefeller has to do is ask his Consumer Protection Subcommittee Counsels to join his meetings with his Communications Counsels.

But even if the FTC is standing by, ready, willing and able to take over, and even if that approach would likely be acceptable to the powers-that-be on the Hill, there’s still one big question: would Mr. Genachowski voluntarily give up the power he believes his agency has? Jurisdiction does not switch hands easily or often in this town, but Mr. Genachowski’s boss, President Obama, might not care which of his agencies holds authority, as long as his National Broadband Plan’s infrastructure is protected.

One thing, I believe, is certain: net neutrality enforcement authority will be assigned eventually. Like a handful of chips thrown into the air on a casino floor, no part of government’s power will be left un-gathered and unused. The only question left is who will pick them up.