Does SCOTUS EPA Case Impact Net Neutrality? Here’s Why I Say No.

For most people, the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency was about environmental policy and what the Environmental Protection Agency can still do to cut carbon emissions. For a smaller subset, mostly lawyers, W. VA v. EPA was an important (but confusing) administrative law case what we will spend a bunch of time arguing about how to apply to agencies generally. And for the tiniest of all possible subsets, meaning me and a handful of other telecom lawyers, it was about . . . net neutrality. Because just about everything in telecom still revolves around net neutrality. Srsly. If we were living in the Don’t Look Up universe and a giant asteroid were about to smash into the earth, I’d be getting questions about folks whether I thought the asteroid supported classifying broadband as Title II.

 

The other basic truism about these events is that they are rather like ink blots, where what you see depends a lot on what you already think. So those who hate Title II are convinced that this spells doom for any FCC reclassification efforts, whereas those on the pro-Title II side think this doesn’t really change anything. I’m as much a human being subject to this bias as anyone else. So I can only explain why I think W.VA. v. EPA hasn’t changed anything and let y’all decide if I’m right. It all depends on what the Court means by a “major question” that requires “clear proof” that Congress intended to vest the agency with the power to do the thing.

 

Annoyingly, the Supreme Court has not been particularly clear on this concept. The anti-Title II folks point to Kavanaugh’s dissent from the D.C. Circuit’s refusal to rehear USTA v. FCC (the case that upheld the FCC’s 2015 Title II/Net Neutrality Order, which rested in part of what Kavanaugh called “the major rule” doctrine (now officially called “major question” doctrine) and the fact that the Roberts decision in W.VA v. EPA cited the Kavanaugh dissent (although not for anything having to actually do with net neutrality.) On the other hand, as I explain below, the actual language describing the “major question doctrine” if you read the case runs against the description of the “major rules doctrine” as described by Kavanaugh in USTA. More importantly, the Court’s reliance on Gonzales v. Oregon – which cites the FCC’s authority over broadband in Brand X approvingly as an example of where Congressional delegation is “clear” – seems to me much more important than a passing citation to the Kavanaugh dissent.

 

Additionally, while we always knew where Kavanaugh would be if this ever reaches SCOTUS again, there is plenty of reason to believe he lacks 4 additional votes for his position. Notably, Thomas (and to some degree it seems Alito and Gorsuch) have all fallen in love with common carrier again. True, that is in the context of social media, but it would be a level of weirdness to find that judges by common law can determine Facebook is a common carrier but broadband providers can’t be common carriers without Congress expressly saying so. Also, Thomas actually wrote the Brand X opinion, which found that it was totally cool for the FCC to classify DSL as Title II even if cable broadband were classified as Title I, so it’s hard to see how this kind of agency discretion is compatible with “major question doctrine.”

 

I break all this down in detail below . . .

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Can The States Really Pass Their Own Net Neutrality Laws? Here’s Why I Think Yes.

We are seeing lots of activity in the states on net neutrality. The Governors of MontanaNew 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 . . . .

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What You Need To Know About Repealing The Repeal of Net Neutrality — How The CRA Works.

There is a great deal of excitement, but also a great deal of misunderstanding, about the effort to “repeal the repeal” of net neutrality using the Congressional Review Act (CRA). On the one hand, we have folks who are confused by the enormous progress made so far and think that we are just one vote shy of repealing the repeal. On the other extreme, we have the folks declaring the effort totally doomed and impossible from the start.

 

You can read the relevant statutory provisions here at 5 U.S.C. 801-08. Briefly, a “Resolution of Disapproval” (which we refer to as a “CRA” rather than a “CRD” just to confuse people) must pass both the Senate and the House (in either order) and then be signed by the President like any other piece of legislation. If the President vetoes Congress may override the veto with a 2/3 vote as it can with any other vetoed legislation. You might think that this makes it impossible for the minority party to get legislation passed. But the CRA was designed to allow a majority of members to pass a Resolution of Disapproval over the objections of the leadership and on a bare majority (so it circumvents the filibuster). And while yes, it must still get past the President, there are reasons to think that is not as impossible as some folks think.

 

 

Right now, the action has been in the Senate, where Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has announced that all 47 Democrats (and the 2 independents who caucus with them) will vote for the CRA. With Republican Susan Collins (R-ME) joining her fellow Senator from Maine Angus King (I-ME), that makes the total number of yes votes 50. So if Dems find one more “yes” vote in the Senate, they can clear that hurdle. But while this is extraordinary news in a very short period of time (technically, it is still too early to even introduce a CRA on the FCC’s net neutrality vote, since the item has not been published in the federal register) — we still have a long way to go to get this over the finish line.

 

But, just to provide some historic perspective. Back in 2003, the nascent (and totally unanticipated by anybody — especially anybody with any experience in media policy) media reform movement rose up against the roll back of all media ownership rules by then-FCC chair Michael Powell. Republican FCC, Republican Congress, Republican President — all supportive of the roll back and big deregulators. Nevertheless, against all odds, we managed to push through a partial roll back by freezing the national ownership limit at 39% (which, not by coincidence, was the ownership level of the largest holding companies — News Corp. and Viacom — as seen in this West Wing episode). So yeah, sometimes the universe give us some long-shot unexpected surprises.

 

I discuss the details of a CRA, and why I think we can win this (and even if we don’t, why it still works in our favor overall), below. In the meantime, you can go to this Public Knowledge resource page to contact your Senators and Representative directly and push them to vote for the Net Neutrality CRA.

 

UPDATE: Matt Schettenhelm pointed out to me that while 30 Senators bypases the Committee and gets on the calendar, you still need to win a motion to proceed before debate and final up down vote. See this article here. I’ve corrected this below.

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