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[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.]

I am pleased to participate in this retrospective symposium regarding Ajit Pai’s tenure as Federal Communications Commission chairman. I have been closely involved in communications law and policy for nearly 45 years, and, as I’ve said several times since Chairman Pai announced his departure, he will leave as one of the most consequential leaders in the agency’s history. And, I should hastily add, consequential in a positive way, because it’s possible to be consequential in a not-so-positive way.

Chairman Pai’s leadership has been impactful in many different areas—for example, spectrum availability, media deregulation, and institutional reform, to name three—but in this tribute I will focus on his efforts regarding “net neutrality.” I use the quotes because the term has been used by many to mean many different things in many different contexts.

Within a year of becoming chairman, and with the support of fellow Republican commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, Ajit Pai led the agency in reversing the public utility-like “net neutrality” regulation that had been imposed by the Obama FCC in February 2015 in what became known as the Title II Order. The Title II Order had classified internet service providers (ISPs) as “telecommunications carriers” subject to the same common-carrier regulatory regime imposed on monopolistic Ma Bell during most of the 20th century. While “forbearing” from imposing the full array of traditional common-carrier regulatory mandates, the Title II Order also subjected ISPs to sanctions if they violated an amorphous “general conduct standard,” which provided that ISPs could not “unreasonably” interfere with or disadvantage end users or edge providers like Google, Facebook, and the like.

The aptly styled Restoring Internet Freedom Order (RIF Order), adopted in December 2017, reversed nearly all of the Title II Order’s heavy-handed regulation of ISPs in favor of a light-touch regulatory regime. It was aptly named, because the RIF Order “restored” market “freedom” to internet access regulation that had mostly prevailed since the turn of the 21st century. It’s worth remembering that, in 1999, in opting not to require that newly emerging cable broadband providers be subjected to a public utility-style regime, Clinton-appointee FCC Chairman William Kennard declared: “[T]he alternative is to go to the telephone world…and just pick up this whole morass of regulation and dump it wholesale on the cable pipe. That is not good for America.” And worth recalling, too, that in 2002, the commission, under the leadership of Chairman Michael Powell, determined that “broadband services should exist in a minimal regulatory environment that promotes investment and innovation in a competitive market.”

It was this reliance on market freedom that was “restored” under Ajit Pai’s leadership. In an appearance at a Free State Foundation event in December 2016, barely a month before becoming chairman, then-Commissioner Pai declared: “It is time to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation.” And he added: “Proof of market failure should guide the next commission’s consideration of new regulations.” True to his word, the weed whacker was used to cut down the public utility regime imposed on ISPs by his predecessor. And the lack of proof of any demonstrable market failure was at the core of the RIF Order’s reasoning.

It is true that, as a matter of law, the D.C. Circuit’s affirmance of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order in Mozilla v. FCC rested heavily on the application by the court of Chevron deference, just as it is true that Chevron deference played a central role in the affirmance of the Title II Order and the Brand X decision before that. And it would be disingenuous to suggest that, if a newly reconstituted Biden FCC reinstitutes a public utility-like regulatory regime for ISPs, that Chevron deference won’t once again play a central role in the appeal.

But optimist that I am, and focusing not on what possibly may be done as a matter of law, but on what ought to be done as a matter of policy, the “new” FCC should leave in place the RIF Order’s light-touch regulatory regime. In affirming most of the RIF Order in Mozilla, the D.C. Circuit agreed there was substantial evidence supporting the commission’s predictive judgment that reclassification of ISPs “away from public-utility style regulation” was “likely to increase ISP investment and output.” And the court agreed there was substantial evidence to support the commission’s position that such regulation is especially inapt for “a dynamic industry built on technological development and disruption.”

Indeed, the evidence has only become more substantial since the RIF Order’s adoption. Here are only a few factual snippets: According to CTIA, wireless-industry investment for 2019 grew to $29.1 billion, up from $27.4 billion in 2018 and $25.6 billion in 2017USTelecom estimates that wireline broadband ISPs invested approximately $80 billion in network infrastructure in 2018, up more than $3.1 billion from $76.9 billion in 2017. And total investment most likely increased in 2019 for wireline ISPs like it did for wireless ISPs. Figures cited in the FCC’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report indicate that fiber broadband networks reached an additional 6.5 million homes in 2019, a 16% increase over the prior year and the largest single-year increase ever

Additionally, more Americans have access to broadband internet access services, and at ever higher speeds. According to an April 2020 report by USTelecom, for example, gigabit internet service is available to at least 85% of U.S. homes, compared to only 6% of U.S. homes three-and-a-half years ago. In an October 2020 blog post, Chairman Pai observed that “average download speeds for fixed broadband in the United States have doubled, increasing by over 99%” since the RIF Order was adopted. Ookla Speedtests similarly show significant gains in mobile wireless speeds, climbing to 47/10 Mbps in September 2020 compared to 27/8 Mbps in the first half of 2018.

More evidentiary support could be offered regarding the positive results that followed adoption of the RIF Order, and I assume in the coming year it will be. But the import of abandonment of public utility-like regulation of ISPs should be clear.

There is certainly much that Ajit Pai, the first-generation son of immigrants who came to America seeking opportunity in the freedom it offered, accomplished during his tenure. To my way of thinking, “Restoring Internet Freedom” ranks at—or at least near—the top of the list.

In the opening seconds of what was surely one of the worst oral arguments in a high-profile case that I have ever heard, Pantelis Michalopoulos, arguing for petitioners against the FCC’s 2018 Restoring Internet Freedom Order (RIFO) expertly captured both why the side he was representing should lose and the overall absurdity of the entire net neutrality debate: “This order is a stab in the heart of the Communications Act. It would literally write ‘telecommunications’ out of the law. It would end the communications agency’s oversight over the main communications service of our time.”

The main communications service of our time is the Internet. The Communications and Telecommunications Acts were written before the advent of the modern Internet, for an era when the telephone was the main communications service of our time. The reality is that technological evolution has written “telecommunications” out of these Acts – the “telecommunications services” they were written to regulate are no longer the important communications services of the day.

The basic question of the net neutrality debate is whether we expect Congress to weigh in on how regulators should respond when an industry undergoes fundamental change, or whether we should instead allow those regulators to redefine the scope of their own authority. In the RIFO case, petitioners (and, more generally, net neutrality proponents) argue that agencies should get to define their own authority. Those on the other side of the issue (including me) argue that that it is up to Congress to provide agencies with guidance in response to changing circumstances – and worry that allowing independent and executive branch agencies broad authority to act without Congressional direction is a recipe for unfettered, unchecked, and fundamentally abusive concentrations of power in the hands of the executive branch.

These arguments were central to the DC Circuit’s evaluation of the prior FCC net neutrality order – the Open Internet Order. But rather than consider the core issue of the case, the four hours of oral arguments this past Friday were instead a relitigation of long-ago addressed ephemeral distinctions, padded out with irrelevance and esoterica, and argued with a passion available only to those who believe in faerie tales and monsters under their bed. Perhaps some revelled in hearing counsel for both sides clumsily fumble through strained explanations of the difference between standalone telecommunications services and information services that are by definition integrated with them, or awkward discussions about how ISPs may implement hypothetical prioritization technologies that have not even been developed. These well worn arguments successfully demonstrated, once again, how many angels can dance upon the head of a single pin – only never before have so many angels been so irrelevant.

This time around, petitioners challenging the order were able to scare up some intervenors to make novel arguments on their behalf. Most notably, they were able to scare up a group of public safety officials to argue that the FCC had failed to consider arguments that the RIFO would jeopardize public safety services that rely on communications networks. I keep using the word “scare” because these arguments are based upon incoherent fears peddled by net neutrality advocates in order to find unsophisticated parties to sign on to their policy adventures. The public safety fears are about as legitimate as concerns that the Easter Bunny might one day win the Preakness – and merited as much response from the FCC as a petition from the Racehorse Association of America demanding the FCC regulate rabbits.

In the end, I have no idea how the DC Circuit is going to come down in this case. Public Safety concerns – like declarations of national emergencies – are often given undue and unwise weight. And there is a legitimately puzzling, if fundamentally academic, argument about a provision of the Communications Act (47 USC 257(c)) that Congress repealed after the Order was adopted and that was an noteworthy part of the notice the FCC gave when the Order was proposed that could lead the Court to remand the Order back to the Commission.

In the end, however, this case is unlikely to address the fundamental question of whether the FCC has any business regulating Internet access services. If the FCC loses, we’ll be back here in another year or two; if the FCC wins, we’ll be back here the next time a Democrat is in the White House. And the real tragedy is that every minute the FCC spends on the interminable net neutrality non-debate is a minute not spent on issues like closing the rural digital divide or promoting competitive entry into markets by next generation services.

So much wasted time. So many billable hours. So many angels dancing on the head of a pin. If only they were the better angels of our nature.


Postscript: If I sound angry about the endless fights over net neutrality, it’s because I am. I live in one of the highest-cost, lowest-connectivity states in the country. A state where much of the territory is covered by small rural carriers for whom the cost of just following these debates can mean delaying the replacement of an old switch, upgrading a circuit to fiber, or wiring a street. A state in which if prioritization were to be deployed it would be so that emergency services would be able to work over older infrastructure or so that someone in a rural community could remotely attend classes at the University or consult with a primary care physician (because forget high speed Internet – we have counties without doctors in them). A state in which if paid prioritization were to be developed it would be to help raise capital to build out service to communities that have never had high-speed Internet access.

So yes: the fact that we might be in for another year of rule making followed by more litigation because some firefighters signed up for the wrong wireless service plan and then were duped into believing a technological, economic, and political absurdity about net neutrality ensuring they get free Internet access does make me angry. Worse, unlike the hypothetical harms net neutrality advocates are worried about, the endless discussion of net neutrality causes real, actual, concrete harm to the people net neutrality advocates like to pat themselves on the back as advocating for. We should all be angry about this, and demanding that Congress put this debate out of our misery.