FCC Votes Itself Judge Dredd of the Internet


In a speech delivered on January 19, 2010, Julius Genachowski, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, declared that transparency "is particularly important for consumer protection and empowerment." He praised "access to information" as "essential to properly functioning markets" and stated that "policies around information disclosure…can be enormously helpful in ensuring that markets are working."

Does Genachowski believe it's less important for the federal government? In theory, no: Last summer, Genachowski promised that under his watch, the Commission would be "fair," "open," and "transparent."

But earlier today, the FCC, led by Genachowski, voted 3-2 to adopt a new set of rules governing private management of the Internet's core infrastructure. Thanks to a decision by Genachowski not to make the order detailing the rules public, no one outside the FCC has seen the actual order that was passed. Even those on the inside were given little time to wade through its reported complexities: Meredith Baker, who along with Genachowski is one of the FCC's five commissioners, said in her remarks that she and her staff only received the most recent draft—the one voted on today—around 11:30 p.m. last night.

Genachowski's remarks portrayed the rules as a moderate middle ground between the extremes. It was a decision driven not by ideology but the desire to "protect basic Internet values." If it's a middle ground, it's a legally dubious one. Earlier this year, a federal court ruled that the FCC had no Congressionally granted authority to regulate network management. Congress hasn't updated the agency's authority over the Net since then, but the FCC is now saying that, well, it has the authority anyway. Genachowski's team has come up with a different legal justification, and they're betting that this time around they can convince a judge to buy it.

Still, Genachowski's portrayal of the order may be half right: The FCC's move on net neutrality is not really about ideology. It's about authority: He's not so much protecting values as expanding the FCC's regulatory reach. According to Genachowski's summary remarks, the new rules call for a prohibition on "unreasonable discrimination" by Internet Service Providers—with the FCC's regulators, natch, in charge of determining what counts as unreasonable. In theory, this avoids the pitfalls that come with strict rules. But in practice, it gives the FCC the power to unilaterally and arbitrarily decide which network management innovations and practices are acceptable—and which ones aren't.

It's the tech-sector bureaucrat's equivalent of declaring, Judge Dredd style, "I am the law!" Indeed, Genachowski has said before—and reiterated today—that the rules will finally give the FCC the authority to play "cop on the beat" for the Internet.

The comparison may not be quite as comforting as he seems to think. But it is telling: Genachowski may not be eager to tell the public exactly what the Internet's new rules of the road are, but he's mighty eager to have his agency enforce them.

Here's Reason.tv with three reasons the FCC shouldn't regulate the Net: