The net neutrality debate reached a fever pitch last week when the D.C. Circuit heard oral arguments in Verizon v. FCC. Although many pundits have predicted what the appeals court will do, let’s search instead for an instructive lesson for reforming the FCC, something that policy wonks on all sides of the debate agree is necessary.
For years, I have been peddling a “compromise” on net neutrality between the folks who want to level the playing field for websites (or “edge providers”) and the folks who want to turn down the lights at the FCC.
Before explaining the idea, a quick backgrounder is in order: In December 2010, the FCC issued its Open Internet Order, which effectively proscribed certain practices by Internet service providers (ISPs), including selectively blocking traffic and contracting for priority delivery with websites. Rather than imposing an outright ban on “pay for priority” contracts, the FCC sternly warned ISPs that “as a general matter, it is unlikely that pay for priority would satisfy the ‘no unreasonable discrimination’ standard.” Put differently, such arrangements would presumptively violate the FCC’s new “non-discrimination” rule, and the burden would be on the ISP to reverse that presumption if it was ever foolish enough to try such a thing.
Of course, these rules have nothing to do with discrimination in the classic sense—that is, treating someone or something differently on the basis of some exogenous attribute (such as age, race, or lack of affiliation). For example, under the FCC’s Open Internet Order, if Time Warner TWX +0.57% (an ISP) entered into a pay-for-priority arrangement with Sony SNE +0.89% (a website) to support a Sony online-gaming application, that contract would presumptively violate the FCC’s “non-discrimination” rules even if Time Warner stood ready to extend the same economic terms to all comers. Calling these rules the “zero-price rule” or the “no-economic-relation” rule would have been more accurate, but less politically appealing.
Flash forward three years to last week’s hearing, and the FCC’s attorneys were arguing that pay for priority was tolerated under the order. Huh? Competition Law 360 ran an article appropriately titled “FCC Switches Gears In D.C. Circuit Net Neutrality Fight.” In response to the FCC’s surprise claim that ISPs were free to strike pay-for-priority deals, Judge Tatel exclaimed: “I thought the whole purpose of the rule was so edge providers would have free and unfettered access.” And Judge Silberman asked how an ISP could charge websites for priority but have no recourse if the website refused to pay.
Setting aside the legal niceties raised by Verizon’s challenge, the best outcome for consumers would be a rule that permits ISPs to contract for priority delivery but polices such arrangements for discriminatory conduct (say in favor of an affiliated website) on a case-by-case basis. Under this ex post approach, priority arrangements would be presumptively legal, and the burden of overturning that presumption would fall on the complaining website. It bears noting that the FCC uses the exact framework to adjudicate discrimination complaints in the cable video space.
Like any compromise, this solution would entail some sacrifice on both sides: Nascent websites would be forced to pay up if they wanted the same quality of service as their (paying) competitors, and ISPs would be prevented from playing favorites. It is hard to identify any “losers” in an economic sense, except perhaps those websites that preferred a free ride.
The consumer benefits of this ex post approach would be enormous: Investments would likely pour into real-time applications such as telemedicine, distance learning, and interactive games, which could exploit the priority services. Users could enjoy these apps as they were originally intended. And ISPs could use the new revenues to extend or enhance their networks.
Another benefit of this approach is that it appears to solve at least one of the FCC’s legal predicaments. Judge Tatel warned during his questions last week that the Open Internet Order’s “non-discrimination” rule did not afford “any room for negotiation” between ISPs and websites. And Judge Silberman said, “As a matter of law, this [non-discrimination] rule requires some level of access, which runs afoul of common carriage.” By permitting pay for priority contracts, the ex post approach would provide ISPs the very flexibility that is needed to get them out of this mess.
So how can this grand compromise come about? The D.C. Circuit will likely vacate the “non-discrimination” portion of the order and send it back to the FCC. At that point, the FCC will have an opportunity to revise its rules along the lines of what I’ve described here. With any luck, the agency will recognize that the ex post approach is a template for much more than fixing its overreach in the Open Internet Order. Forsaking broad proscriptions in favor of regulatory tolerance toward new business relations combined with case-by-case review is the path forward in the new digital era.