Friday, November 2, 2007

What Can the FCC Do When ISPs Block or Degrade Certain Types of Traffic?

A group of pro network neutrality advocates have filed a Petition for Declaratory Ruling and Formal Complaint in response to Comcast’s furtive traffic “shaping” and “management” tactics that have the effect of blocking or degrading peer-to-peer traffic. See http://www.freepress.net/docs/fp_et_al_nn_declaratory_ruling.pdf; and http://www.freepress.net/docs/fp_pk_comcast_complaint.pdf.

The group asks the FCC to issue preliminary and permanent injunctions prohibiting Comcast from engaging in such tactics, to fine Comcast and to declare that such tactics violate the Commission’s Policy Statement that establishe network neutrality “principles” (see http://www.publicknowledge.org/pdf/FCC-05-151A1.pdf).

While I endorse the groups’ efforts, I believe the petition and complaint would achieve greater impact had the authors addressed the issue of whether and how the FCC can act in the ways the group proposes. Specifically both the group and the FCC have to examine the breadth of jurisdiction and regulatory options available to the Commission under Title I of the Communications Act.

Both the petitioners and the FCC assume that the Commission can act to enforce the network neutrality principles articulated in a three page Policy Statement that devotes two sentences to the issue:

While acknowledging that it cannot assert conventional, Title II common carrier regulation, because ISPs provide information services and not telecommunications services, the FCC stated summarily that it “has jurisdiction to impose additional regulatory obligations under its Title I ancillary jurisdiction to regulate interstate and foreign communications.” According to the Commission that translates into having “the jurisdiction necessary to ensure that providers of telecommunications for Internet access or Internet Protocol-enabled (IP-enabled) services are operated in a neutral manner.

Also noted by the petitions was a sentence in the FCC’s its order assigning the information service classification to cable modem Internet access where the Commission stated its intent “to take action to address . . . conduct” that violates network neutrality.

I fully expect opponents of the petition and complaint to state that the FCC has neither the jurisdiction nor the intent to impose on ISPs such as Comcast what opponents will frame as common carrier obligations. So the Internet Policy statement has to be interpreted as lawfully imposing responsibilities that serve the public interest without imposing common carrier responsibilities, but which cannot constitute the kind of unlawful expansion of jurisdiction Justice Scalia predicted would occur in his dissent in the Brand X case. I examine the risk of overstating the scope of Title I “ancillary jurisdiction” in What Do Pizza Delivery and Information Services Have in Common? Lessons From Recent Judicial and Regulatory Struggles with Convergence, 32 RUTGERS COMPUTER AND TECHNOLOGY LAW JOURNAL, No. 2, 247-296 (2006).

The FCC has taken great pains to create a deregulatory “safe harbor” for information services providers. The Commission has managed to shoe horn DSL, cable modems, BPL and wireless Internet access into the information services classification which the Commission considers completely separate from regulated telecommunications services. To underscore the absoluteness of this dichotomy the Commission has come up with a tenuous differential based on whether a carrier “offers” telecommunications versus “provides” telecommunications. The former falls into the common carriage telecommunications service category, while the latter qualifies for private carriage of an information service, because the Commission chooses to subordinate the telecommunications component into a minor and integrated activity.

The FCC already has invoked its Title I ancillary authority to impose a number of traditional common carrier duties on Voice over the Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) providers and courts have deferred to the agency’s expertise absent a clear statutory mandate.

But at some point the FCC may go to the Title I well too often. I suspect the FCC will have to flesh out its authority to abrogate contracts between landlords and cable operators, particularly in light of the traction gained over the years by incumbent telephone companies that interconnection regulation, such as unbundling and line sharing, “confiscates” their property. Perhaps also the FCC will have to explain why it and not the Federal Trade Commission should act on what can be deemed a consumer protection matter.

At the very least the FCC will have to do more than unilaterally and summarily state that it has jurisdiction under Title I to impose network neutrality principles. The petitioners could have helped the Commission come up with a compelling rationale.

1 comment:

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