Q&A: The Ripple Effect Of The 'Net Neutrality' Ruling

Tuesday's federal appeals court decision that tossed out a Federal Communications Commission order could have an impact far beyond "net neutrality."

So we asked Susan Crawford to break it down for us. Crawford is a net-neutrality advocate and a University of Michigan law professor. Last year, she served as President Obama's special assistant for science, technology and Internet policy.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is about preventing high-speed Internet providers from discriminating against certain sorts of providers or users of their network. For a hundred years, we've treated communications providers like sidewalks. The sidewalks can't choose between different walkers and have them travel at different speeds.

What do companies like Comcast have against regulations demanding net neutrality?

They will argue that this is a competitive marketplace. They say, we're a private business and you can't use old-fashioned rules to force us to provide the same service to everybody — that more regulation means less investment.

And the U.S. is already slipping to 15th or 16th place among developed nations with respect to adoption of high-speed access.

What are the broader implications of this decision?

Back in 2002, the FCC started to deregulate providers of high-speed Internet access. It's sort of a house of cards. The entire legal direction that they took — saying, we can regulate these people even if we've taken them out of the common carriage part of the telecommunications act — that arguably is not going to work. The court has said that that entire direction is legally unsound.

That means the FCC, in order to do things like protect consumer privacy, would need to point to some other title of the act.

So what happens next?

The FCC has a couple of options. It can try to persuade the court that it's trying to protect its other statutory authorities over telephone and cable. It faces a mountain of litigation if it does that.

Or it can try to change the legal classification of high-speed Internet providers so the FCC's power to speak to them is clear.

Will the providers be happy about this?

They've won the battle and arguably lost the war.

Comcast wanted this argument to go on procedural grounds. Now there's this big substantive decision. It has such large effects on the FCC's power that it may set up a long-term battle.

The FCC's authority to regulate these actors was always unclear. But you can't have the nation's communications regulator unable to speak to the nation's Internet providers.

The Internet is the general-purpose communications device of our time. It's replacing the telephone.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.