2014 Year in Review — Net Neutrality: Where We've Been, and Where We're Going


This post is one in a series of reports on significant issues for startups in 2014. In the past year, the startup community's voice helped drive notable debates in tech and entrepreneurship policy, but many of the tech world's policy goals in 2014, from net neutrality to patent reform, remain unfulfilled. Stay tuned for more year-end updates and continue to watch this space in 2015 as we follow the policy issues most affecting the startup community.

Of all the tech policy issues that got major airtime in 2014, few resonated so deeply with the general public as the fight over net neutrality. The net neutrality debate highlighted both the strength of the Internet community’s voice and the ample work we must still do to make sure Washington heeds our message. Thousands of companies that depend on the Internet’s open playing field and millions of Americans who recognize the threat posed by unchecked ISP gatekeepers mounted a sustained and effective campaign throughout the year to influence the FCC’s net neutrality rulemaking. While these efforts have been enormously successful in getting the FCC to take net neutrality seriously, the task is not yet finished.

This year’s net neutrality fight was not the first time the FCC grappled with these questions. Though the FCC in 2002 (wrongly, we believe) classified broadband Internet as an “information service” under the Communications Act of 1934, rather than a “telecommunications service,” broadband Internet has always been governed by net neutrality principles. Under such principles, ISPs are obligated to treat all sources of data equally and not block or degrade traffic from particular edge providers. The FCC enshrined these principles as enforceable rules in its 2010 Open Internet Order, which established regulations against ISP discrimination.

Earlier this year, an appellate court in D.C. threw out out these 2010 rules not because of any inherent infirmity with the logic of net neutrality itself but on something of a legal technicality: only “common carrier” services could be subject to bright line rules against discrimination, and since the FCC neglected to classify broadband as a common carrier telecommunications service, it could not now bar ISP discrimination. The court held that any rules issued pursuant to the FCC’s section 706 authority—a statutory mandate to enact policies that promote the adoption of broadband—could not include a ban on paid prioritization arrangements or other forms of access fees unless the FCC first reclassified broadband as a common carrier service under Title II of the Communications Act. Faced with this rejection of its 2010 rules, the FCC was asked yet again to reconsider how and whether to protect a neutral Internet.

Reports earlier this spring suggested that the FCC was not considering any plan involving reclassification, which signaled to the Internet community that the FCC was essentially turning its back on net neutrality altogether. The reaction to these reports was swift and effective. Engine, along with the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation  sent a letter to the FCC with nearly 200 major Internet company signatories demanding that the Commission issue rules sufficient to block discrimination and paid prioritization. The FCC got the message, and its notice of proposed rulemaking solicited comments on whether to reclassify broadband under Title II in order to establish meaningful net neutrality rules.

Even as the FCC discussed the possibility of reclassification in its proposed rules, few believed that reclassification had any chance of going forward. Unwilling to accept a world in which ISPs could abuse their gatekeeper power to impose rent-seeking access fees, the Internet community got to work. The path from toothless rules under section 706 to the imminent possibility of full-fledged net neutrality regulations under Title II was paved most visibly by a stunningly large public response. Nearly 4 million commenters wrote to the FCC about its consideration of new net neutrality rules, a majority of whom supported calls for stronger regulations to prevent ISP misconduct. Recognizing that the high cost of access fees that ISPs could charge edge providers would ultimately get passed on to consumers, citizens fought back against allowing ISPs to serve as gatekeepers to the Internet.

Startups also played a key role in shifting the FCC’s consideration of net neutrality rules towards more meaningful regulations under Title II. Despite having limited resources and time to devote to challenging the lobbying might of cable companies, startups from across the country worked hard to keep the Internet open for permissionless innovation, filing comments with the FCC, participating in an Internet-wide protest, and flying to Washington, D.C. to gin up political support for real net neutrality. As the dire consequences of abandoning net neutrality would be felt more deeply by smaller companies rather than larger, more established tech firms, startups took on an outsized role in the net neutrality fight.

In the face of this massive popular response, the FCC moved haltingly towards a Title II-based solution, leaking news that it was considering a so-called “hybrid” net neutrality proposal that relied in part on Title II authority, but would have entailed significant risk of being rejected again in court. Under such hybrid proposals, the FCC would divide every Internet communications into two distinct components—a communication between an end user and her ISP and a communication between the ISP and the edge provider the user wants to access—and regulating only this second communication under Title II. While news that the FCC was finally considering Title II in some form was encouraging, the Commission’s failure to recognize that full-fledged Title II reclassification represented a far cleaner path to strong net neutrality was frustrating.

With the FCC expected to circulate a final draft rule only weeks after news of the “hybrid” plans leaked, the time for action appeared to be running out. And then, almost overnight, the conversation changed when President Obama called on the FCC to use Title II reclassification to protect an open Internet. The President’s announcement was game-changing; the once-impossible prospect that the FCC would invoke full Title II reclassification became plausible, perhaps even likely. Politicians rallied behind the President’s plan in droves, and many of the largest tech companies in the country vocally supported the President’s call for full Title II. Even conservatives, often assumed to be opposed to net neutrality, overwhelmingly supported real net neutrality.

But, despite the FCC’s apparent shift from weak net neutrality under 706 to full-fledged Title II reclassification, the net neutrality fight is not yet over. All indications from the FCC suggest that it will circulate its proposed rule this spring. Though most believe that the FCC will propose reclassification (and apply net neutrality principles to mobile broadband—an important protection omitted from the 2010 rules), there is no concrete proof that the FCC will follow the clear will of the people and the Internet economy to enact real net neutrality. While it is crucial that the FCC makes sure that its new rules are strong and sufficient to withstand the inevitable legal challenge from ISPs, we must continue to pressure the FCC to do what’s right and do it promptly, lest carriers use the delay to sap the FCC’s courage to stand up to ISP malfeasance and protect the open Internet.

And, even if the FCC reclassifies broadband in order to craft strong net neutrality rules, the debate will likely continue in the new Republican Congress, which has already signalled its opposition to meaningful net neutrality. Whether Republican opposition is genuine or a knee-jerk reaction to the President’s statements remains to be seen. In the next year, we will keep the pressure on policymakers, reminding them of how crucial net neutrality has been to the momentous growth of the Internet economy and how the millions of Americans who have benefitted from the Internet’s prosperity are fully engaged and ready to fight to preserve the neutral Internet they know and love.