By Patrick Forrest, vice president and deputy general counsel and Cedrick Dalluge, legal fellow, National Association of Manufacturers
On June 14, 2016, a federal appeals court ruled to uphold new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulatory action on “net neutrality” classifying broadband providers not as an information service, but as a telecommunications provider.
The FCC heavily relied on a Great Depression–era statute enacted long before the internet was created to create its rule. Congress in 1934 never intended its Communications Act to govern 21st-century internet operations. Rather than substantively analyzing the FCC’s rule, the court insulated itself by deferring to the agency.
The court also rejected the business communities’ argument that reclassification will undermine investment in broadband infrastructure. Ironically, the court relied on the FCC assertion that “major infrastructure providers have indicated that they will, in fact, continue to invest under the framework.” Those same parties later walked away from those statements, but the court emphasized that the FCC’s conclusions don’t have to be “the ones that we would reach on our own,” they only have to be “reasonable,” and the majority concluded they were.
Consequently, the court failed to conduct a reasonable analysis regarding the operational business impact this rule would have on broadband providers, creating an opening for the possible deterioration of services. Overregulation risks providers diverting money from the development of new networks and technologies, stifling investment in U.S. broadband.
In dissent, Judge Williams correctly found the FCC’s order violates basic principles of agency rule-making. Regarding reclassifying broadband services on the basis of the 1934 statute, Judge Williams writes that the FCC’s justification “fails for want of reasoned decision making.” Beyond that, in crafting its rule, the FCC relied on changed factual circumstances and weak policy decisions. Judge Williams’ grave concerns regarding this ruling, shared by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), demand greater consideration.
By handing down this ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dictated the future of internet use. In effect, the court allowed the FCC to usurp the legislative process to pursue an inefficient quick fix to a complicated issue.
The NAM, as a leader on this issue, will continue this fight. Likely the ultimate decision-making body will be the Supreme Court, and the NAM is committed to seeing this issue through to the end.