We are seeing lots of activity in the states on net neutrality. The Governors of Montana, New York and New Jersey have issued Executive Orders requiring that any broadband provider doing business with the state must certify that it won’t block, throttle, or prioritize any content or applications. Several states are looking at passing legislation applying some version of the 2015 FCC Net Neutrality Rules, with California furthest along in passing something that effectively replicates the pre-2017 rules. All of which raises the question — can the states actually do that?
The FCC not only says “no,” but in the 2017 Net Neutrality Repeal Order, the FCC purported to explicitly preempt any state effort to recreate any net neutrality rules. However, as I pointed out back in 2011 when Republican Commissioners wanted to preempt state reporting requirements, the FCC does not have unlimited preemption power. The FCC has to actually have some source of authority to preempt localities. Indeed, Chairman Pai was so insistent that the FCC lacked the authority to preempt state regulation of intrastate communications services that — in a highly unusual move — he refused to defend the portion of the FCC’s Prison Phone Order capping intrastate rates.
The critical question is not, as some people seem to think, whether broadband involves interstate communications or not. Of course it does. So does ye olde plain old telephone service (POTS), and state regulated that up to the eyeballs back in the day (even if they have subsequently deregulated it almost entirely). The question is whether Congress has used its power over interstate commerce to preempt the states (directly or by delegating that power to the FCC), or whether Congress has so pervasively regulated the field so as to effectively preempt the states, or whether the state law — while framed as a permissible intrastate regulation — impermissibly regulates interstate commerce (aka the “dormant commerce clause” doctrine). Additionally, certain types of state action, such a the action of the state as a purchaser of services, are exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) to preempt.
As always with complicated legal questions, one cannot be 100% sure of how a court will decide. But for the reasons set forth below, I’m reasonably confident that the states can pass their own net neutrality laws. I’m even more confident that a state can decide to purchase services exclusively from carriers that make enforceable pledges not to prioritize or otherwise discriminate against content. Mind you, I don’t think either of these is an effective substitute for federal Title II classification and the 2015 rules. But I encourage states to do what they can and for activists to push for state action in addition to federal action where possible.
More below . . . .