The Federal Communications Commission has released a long-awaited notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) with the goal of bringing back its 2015 net neutrality rules that classified broadband internet as a common carrier and prohibited the blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization of content. The 2015 rules, promulgated under the Obama administration, were repealed in 2017 by former Commissioner Ajit Pai.

Though many expected President Biden’s 2020 victory to result in re-adoption of the 2015 rules, President Biden did not appoint a fifth Commissioner to the FCC until recently, leaving the agency at a 2-2 standstill down party lines for the past two years. With the appointment of Commissioner Anna Gomez, Biden’s FCC is now at full operating capacity to move forward on major actions and reestablish the net neutrality rules. And with the NPRM, the Commission has demonstrated that there are a multitude of changed conditions that necessitate re-adopting the 2015 rules: the NPRM establishes “the increased importance of [broadband internet access service] to consumers since the onset of the pandemic,” that consumers’ perception of broadband internet access service as a standalone telecommunications service is “more pronounced now than it was in 2015,” and that “developments in recent years have highlighted national security and public safety concerns arising in connection with the U.S. communications sector[.]”Continue Reading FCC Issues Draft Net Neutrality Order For October 2023 Meeting

On July 9, 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14036 – Promoting Competition in the American Economy.  The wide-ranging Executive Order includes 72 initiatives that aim to increase enforcement of existing antitrust laws and other consumer protection regulations. The Order targeted at least 15 federal departments, offices, and agencies, potentially affecting a wide panoply of American industries. It is designed to restore competition in the American economy and reverse the effects of corporate consolidation. The Biden Administration hopes this will drive down prices for consumers, increase wages for workers, and facilitate innovation.

The Executive Order proposes to address these problems by “enforc[ing] the antitrust laws to combat the excessive concentration of industry, the abuses of market power, and the harmful effects of monopoly and monopsony.” The Executive Order also “reaffirms that the United States retains the authority to challenge transactions whose previous consummation was in violation of the [antitrust laws.]”

This Executive Order represents a watershed moment in competition policy in the United States, as the White House has directed the entire U.S. government to more aggressively enforce the antitrust laws. The Executive Order has far-reaching implications for antitrust enforcement and communications law alike as it calls for more rigorous antitrust enforcement by the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, and seeks new consumer protection regulations through the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Departments of Transportation and Commerce.Continue Reading President Biden Signs Sweeping Executive Order Promoting Competition with Far-Reaching Effects on Antitrust Enforcement and Communications Law

Commercial practices of Internet Services Providers (ISPs) to exclude certain applications and services from being counted against customers’ data caps, a practice known as Zero-Rating, are arguably creating an economic incentive for users to prefer zero-rated apps and services. These commercial behaviors are under scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic, but the way regulators are actually tackling the issue differs. While in the U.S., California’s net neutrality law prohibits ISPs from engaging in discriminatory Zero-Rating, the European Union’s net neutrality law only sets up a general obligation of equal traffic treatment.  AT&T’s recent decision to end its Zero-Rating program across the U.S. shows that U.S. ISPs are ready to adapt their commercial strategies to strict net neutrality rules.

The European Union (EU) is dealing with Zero-Rating through the prism of the first court case from the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) on the topic.Continue Reading How to Achieve Net Neutrality? Cornering Zero Rating Has No Geo Cap

Italian historian Giambattista Vico pioneered the notion of the circles of history. In the history of net neutrality, the circles have been short, predictable and avoidable: the leitmotif has been that of Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”) inflicting injury upon themselves, through a succession of court defeats, half-defeats and half-victories, where the half-victories have been more damaging than the defeats. Even King Pyrrhus would have blanched at the devastation.

The upshot is that today ISPs may not be able to engage in any zero rating—the practice of exempting online video from their customers’ data caps—even though certain zero rating arrangements may have been acceptable under the 2014 net neutrality rules, enacted under the supposedly dreaded Title II—the ISPs’ boogeyman. Suppose you are on your commuter train, and you really want to catch the final moments of Nicole Kidman’s superb acting in The Undoing. If you have reached your data cap, you will miss them, be greeted with a strangely distorted version of Ms. Kidman’s face, or perhaps have to pay extra to upgrade your plan.

Boy, I bet Verizon regrets having taken the net neutrality rules to court. So joked then Chairman Tom Wheeler at the 2015 FCBA Chairman’s dinner. It was a safe bet. Here are the cliff notes of the net neutrality litigation history: in 2010, the FCC enacts a ban on blocking, throttling, and discrimination, without classifying broadband access as a telecommunications service. Verizon appeals, challenging, first and foremost, the Commission’s authority to make any net neutrality rules, and second, the rules themselves. Verizon loses on authority, but wins on the rules—they look too much like telecommunications service rules, the court says. The consequence, unintended by Verizon, is not that unpredictable: in 2015, the FCC uses the authority affirmed by the Court, and also goes ahead and classifies the service as a telecommunications service, leaving it free to impose telecommunications-service-like rules. It enacts bans on blocking, throttling, and pay-to-play, as well as a general conduct rule. Crucially, under the general conduct rule, the practice of zero rating is not per se unlawful. Rather, it is subject to a case-by-case analysis. The ISPs appeal again, and lose resoundingly in 2016.

In comes the Trump administration, with abolition of the substantive net neutrality rules at the top of the new FCC’s agenda. The FCC does so. A wide coalition of pro-net neutrality parties sues, and the DC Circuit rules on October 1, 2019. The ISPs trumpet a win. Well, not quite. The court remands part of the FCC’s action, including on the ground that the FCC failed to do justice to the paramount factor of public safety. As for the rest of the FCC’s action, the court does not like it either: two of the three judges believe it to be wrong, too, but they do not throw it out only because they believe their hands are tied by the Supreme Court’s decision in Brand X.

In comes California, one of a number of states to step into the void left by the federal abolition of net neutrality. California makes its own net neutrality rules. They look like the abolished 2015 rules with one important difference: zero rating is no longer subject to a case-by-case evaluation. It is restricted more heavily.

A federal district court (for the Eastern District of California) denies the ISPs’ motion for a stay. And so we come to AT&T’s decision to end zero rating across the country.Continue Reading From Supposed Frying Pans to Ever Hotter Fires: AT&T’s Termination of Its Zero Rating Program, and the Many Own-Goals Scored by the Internet Service Providers’ Anti-Net Neutrality Strategy