I have been personally involved in just about every major network neutrality issue since this began as “open access” in 1998. It gives me a somewhat different perspective than others, I expect. For one thing, I actually remember the various network neutrality violations we’ve had over the years — and how the FCC previously expected to address them.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed draft Order repealing net neutrality is, without doubt, the most dramatic and radical about face committed on this matter in the almost 20 years this issue has percolated. Among other things, it completely renounces any FCC oversight over the behavior of broadband providers. Back in 2002, when Chairman Michael Powell’s FCC issued the Cable Modem Declaratory Ruling, defenders of the FCC’s action dismissed the claim that the FCC was abandoning all regulatory oversight of broadband as “fear mongering.” Now, of course, Pai insists that the draft Order simply resets the clock to the golden age of 2014, and that those who insist the FCC ever exercised authority over last-mile broadband are “fear mongering.” To paraphrase Inigo Montoya of the Princess Bride, ‘you keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.’
In particular, Pai and defenders of the draft Order insist that a combination of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Section 5 (15 U.S.C. 45), state consumer protection law, and anti-trust law will provide more than adequate protection for consumers and anyone who doubts this is — you guessed it — fear mongering. Happily, we do not need to speculate on this entirely. We can simply apply the proposed rules in the draft Order and the protections cited by the draft Order and its defenders and apply them to the four most significant network neutrality violations on record.
(1) The 2013-14 “peering dispute” between Netflix and the four largest broadband Internet access service (BIAS) providers — Comcast, Time Warner Cable (now Charter), AT&T and Verizon;
(2) The 2012 decision by AT&T to limit Facetime to the highest tier plan on its mobile service;
It’s worth noting as we begin the analysis that, while the draft Order does not discuss the Netflix/BIAS peering dispute at all, it does discuss the other 3 and explain why they were (a) not a big deal, and (b) would probably be permitted under the FCC’s new approach. But lets run through the exercise on our own. As discussed below, under the existing 2015 rules, the FCC can address and resolve each of these. Under the FTC/State consumer protection law/Sherman Act approach, the only one of these actions subject to any sanction is the 2008 Comcast/BitTorrent blocking, and even then only for the misrepresentations to customers denying its “network management” decision to disrupt p2p traffic. Assuming Comcast actually admitted to blocking/degrading p2p traffic when initially confronted in 2007, neither the FTC nor any of the other proposed remedies would have ended Comcast’s “network management practice.”
This result should not surprise us. After all, not only does the draft Order explicitly cover the 2012 AT&T/Facetime, 2008 Comcast/p2p fight, and the 2005 Madison River VOIP blocking and explain why they should have been permissible rather than subject to “heavy handed” FCC enforcement, but those defending the current draft Order as the Nirvana of “light touch” regulation defended each of these BIAS actions as entirely within the rights of the BIAS provider and an unwarranted interference on the part of the FCC. Whether or not one agrees that these actions were appropriate network management/market negotiation decisions by broadband providers, no one can deny the rules adopted in 2015 expressly prohibits these four incidents whereas the rules in the draft Order expressly permit them.
More detail below . . .