by Timothy Lee
Center for Individual Freedom
Those of us who oppose the Obama Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) effort to bridle the Internet with so-called “net neutrality” regulation have explained at length why reclassifying the Internet as some sort of 1930s-style public utility under Title II is a dangerous idea.
Perhaps we we haven’t devoted appropriate time, however, to explaining why it’s almost certainly illegal.
As a broader policy matter, the vague and muddled calls from the extremist left to reclassify broadband typically don’t extend beyond an emotional demand for federal bureaucrats at the FCC to “do something.” Or, as we often put it, they seek to impose a “fix” for an Internet that isn’t at all “broken.” Accordingly, they go about offering substantive policy proposals as if lunching at a salad bar stocked with bad ingredients. They pick and choose bad items, assembling what they consider a perfect combination.
But what they instead create is a Frankenstein-like monstrosity.
And in terms of legality more specifically, the FCC would be treading onto extremely unstable ground if it opts to follow the demands of far-left activists by rushing headlong into this dubious Title II reclassification proposal. The fact of the matter is that the FCC has long contended that the Internet is a Title I service. Therefore, in order to reclassify, the law requires it to meet a higher burden of proof as to why it got the initial classification wrong. Hysterical activism from the far left that has tended to characterize this debate won’t suffice, whether as a matter of law or a matter of logic. The FCC has already twice lost this legal battle in court (first in 2010, and again in 2014). Rather than stubbornly tempt a third judicial rebuke of its effort to impose “net neutrality,” it would be better to learn its lesson as it proceeds with its rulemaking effort.
And that’s only with regard to traditional wired networks. When it comes to wireless Internet (like the 4G/LTE smartphone technology), the law actually expressly prohibits the FCC from imposing Title II-type rules. That clarity may not discourage the net-roots fringe from demanding reclassification, but it most certainly should stop the FCC from exceeding its legal mandate and once again blatantly flouting both the letter and spirit of applicable law.
Despite six years of effort to the contrary from the Obama Administration, we remain a nation of laws, not men. That timeless principle does not yield to extremists’ pursuit of the “net neutrality” unicorn.
To date, and through previous administrations of both parties over the past two decades, the FCC has avoided attempting to classify Internet service under Title II for good reason: it is bad policy and bad law. Everyone except those clinging to an ideologically extreme position on the matter have recognized that reality. We therefore cannot allow such Title II extremists to suddenly divert us from the “light touch” regulatory course that has made the Internet one of the most beneficial and revolutionary innovations in human history. There’s too much to lose.