A look at successes of the past gives the FCC a way to move forward.

(Author’s note: Last November I posted an item here improvidently titled “How to Solve the Network Neutrality Problem.” My solution was overturned, along with the FCC’s efforts at Internet regulation, by the recent court decision in Comcast v. FCC. Below is a revised path to the same goal that still works after Comcast.)

Network neutrality advocates are in despair following the Comcast decision. That case arose when cable company Comcast selectively hindered customers’ access to certain file-sharing services. The FCC told it to stop. Comcast already had stopped, but went to court anyway to protest the FCC’s butting in. The court ruled for Comcast, asserting the FCC lacks authority to regulate Internet service providers. Comcast is free to decide what content to favor, impede, or block entirely. Read our account here.

Network neutrality – the principle that Internet providers should treat content even-handedly – seems to be dead, waiting only for someone to close its eyes and straighten its tie.   The more desperate among its advocates – including at least one FCC Commissioner – speak openly about the nuclear option: a step called “reclassification.”  This means the FCC would reclassify broadband Internet service as a common carrier “telecommunications service,” thereby exposing it to a wide panoply of regulation. As my colleague Paul Feldman notes, reclassification would generate opposition from several industry segments and possibly Congress, and would certainly lead to protracted court appeals. Also the legality of reclassification is in doubt. Many components of Internet service simply do not fit the definition of telecommunications service (see below), and so are not plausibly subject to regulation.

Reclassification is a sledge-hammer. We need a scalpel. Fortunately, one is available.

Ah, the old days . . .

But first, a nagging question. The Internet has been popular for two decades. Why are we are talking about network neutrality only now? The anti-NN forces note that the stunning growth of the Internet occurred without regulation. Why not just continue?

True, there was no Internet regulation in the dial-up days, but an even stronger force was at work: competition.  The phone companies all had departments functioning as Internet service providers (ISPs). The FCC’s Computer III rules required the bigger phone companies to open their networks to competing ISPs. That gave most people dozens of ISPs to choose from. None of the ISPs dared tamper with customers’ content, because the customers could easily go elsewhere.

Then broadband appeared, and quickly became essential as web pages grew more complex. Most consumers have either one or two sources for broadband: the cable company, over the same wires that carry cable TV; and the phone company, first via DSL and later, in some areas, through fiber-optic cables.

The DSL channel was originally subject to the Computer III sharing rules, but the cable never was. The FCC asked whether it should open the cable to competing ISPs, in the manner of Computer III.

Follow this part closely. To apply Computer III, the FCC would have to find that cable broadband is, or includes, a “telecommunications service” – that is, the pure transport of information, for payment, offered to the public. Common sense tells us that sending Internet pages over the cable has to involve a telecommunications service, among other things. But the FCC is not always bound by common sense. According to its 2002 order, the telecommunications component is not separable from the other components, such as interactive choice of content. The FCC resolved to treat the combined, non-separable service as non-telecommunications. That means Computer III does not apply. A cable operator need not open its facilities to competitors, and can require its Internet customers to use its own ISP service. Cable subscribers are not entitled to competition among ISPs.

The Supreme Court’s Brand X case subsequently upheld the FCC. But it did not say the FCC’s decision was the only right one. Rather – and this is the kind of thing that makes non-lawyers glad they picked some other line of work – the court deferred to the FCC’s right to make the decision. The distinction matters because, ruling the way it did, the Court could easily have supported even the opposite outcome from the FCC.

In the meantime, phone companies answered the FCC’s 2002 cable ruling with outraged filings about a “level playing field.” They still had to put their ISP competitors on the broadband channel, while the cable companies enjoyed the exclusive use of their own cables. In 2005, just a few weeks after the Supreme Court handed down Brand X, the FCC ruled that phone-company broadband was, like cable broadband, a combined service to be regulated as non-telecommunications. No more Computer III; no more competing ISPs.

As a result, if you have broadband Internet service, it is very likely that your ISP is the cable company or the phone company. And, if both companies serve your location, odds are your provider has tried to lock you into a long-term deal with a stiff early termination fee. Unhappy with the service? Tough luck.

Still, some people don’t want the Government intruding into the market for Internet services. Others don’t want a near-monopoly provider deciding what content they should receive. After Comcast, is there any hope for the second camp?

A possible way out

Suppose the FCC were to revisit that 2002 cable decision, the one holding the telecommunications and non-telecommunications aspects of Internet service to be inseparable. Could the FCC now change its mind, and separate out the transport-for-pay component as a telecommunications service? Then, instead of applying the full weight of common carrier rules, it could impose just one: a requirement like that in Computer III, requiring the operator to allow competing ISP on the cable. That would bring back competition among ISPs, and create a major disincentive to tampering with content.

Until last year, this would not have been workable. An agency like the FCC could not change its position without an intervening change of circumstances, such as a major shift in the industry landscape. But last year’s Supreme Court case of Fox v. FCC changed the rules on changing the rules.

After Fox, the FCC need show only that the new policy makes sense – not that it makes more sense than the old policy. Admittedly, abrupt reversals of established policy have historically been disfavored for many good reasons, and such reversals may – as Brother Feldman observes – still be subject to attack as unjustified. But Fox appears to given the agency considerably greater leeway to change its mind.

Had the FCC chosen to regulate the cable transport back in 2002, the cable companies would have gone to court, but they probably would have lost, under the reasoning in Brand X that defers to the FCC’s judgment. And if the FCC could have required ISP competition on the cable in 2002, then the Fox case strongly suggests they could do it today.

The argument is even better for phone company broadband, which was subject to mandatory-competition rules until 2005. If anything, the case for requiring ISP competition is stronger now, in light of abuses by the providers, followed by the Comcast court’s closing off more direct remedies.

The process has one more step. The FCC can require ISP competition, as above, but not network neutrality, after Comcast. Either one – competition or neutrality – can protect consumers against content discrimination. So why not give the provider a choice? Undo the 2002 and 2005 broadband orders; regulate data transport as telecommunications; require providers to open their facilities to competitors – but waive that rule for providers that adopt network neutrality. Competition will flourish, or content will be available without discrimination. Either way, consumers come out ahead.