The previous post in this series explained how sponsored data could promote competition among so-called ‘edge’ companies who provide gatekeeper services on the Internet. In their responses to reporter Howard Buskirk’s coverage of the post for Communications Daily, net neutrality advocates didn’t dispute the critical fact that non-ISP service providers exercise gatekeeper control over other edge providers on the Internet. They merely claimed that concerns about regulatory parity are “silly” and that addressing non-ISP gatekeepers would “muddy” the net neutrality waters.
They thus admitted my fundamental point: That attempting to regulate the transmission component of services that include information processing functions under the ‘gatekeeper theory’ would indeed “muddy” the FCC’s regulatory waters. Avoiding such uncertainty is why the FCC adopted a bright line distinction between basic transmission services (i.e., plain old telephone services) and services that are not in its Final Computer II decision 34 years ago. Even then the FCC was concerned that any attempt to “delineate a distinction between communications and data processing services” would result in a “boundary line . . . [that] can vacillate, and confidence in decisions made based on that distinction would be diminished.”
The bright line approach exempting services that combine transmission and information processing functions from regulation walled off many services from Title II regulation that had been regulated in the context of plain old telephone service. Replacing the bright line approach exempting broadband services from Title II regulation with the ‘gatekeeper theory’ would dramatically expand the FCC’s regulatory authority to cover broadband services that have previously been considered off limits. If net neutrality advocates continue to insist on the reclassification of broadband Internet access services under Title II, they should dispense with sloganeering and engage in a serious discussion about the implications of regulating broadband Internet services as common carriers.
The inability of net neutrality advocates to articulate a meaningful difference between the ‘gatekeeper control’ exercised by ISPs and the control exercised by non-ISP gatekeepers cannot be casually dismissed by the FCC, whose reasoning regarding reclassification would almost certainly be scrutinized by an appellate court. Contrary to popular opinion among net neutrality advocates, Title II regulation — and thus, the gatekeeper theory — is not limited to ‘last mile’ facilities. The Communications Act provides the FCC with broad authority over “communication by wire or radio” and all its “instrumentalities” in order to make available a “nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service.” There is nothing in the Act to suggest that this authority magically dissipates at some amorphous boundary between the ‘last mile’ and the ‘Internet beyond the wall’, or that ‘last mile’ facilities inherently present “special concerns” with respect to the theory of gatekeeper control. The FCC’s legal authority over communications services has always applied on an ‘end-to-end’ basis, from one communications device to another and everything in between.
The implications of combining the theory of ‘gatekeeper control’ with the FCC’s ‘end-to-end’ jurisdiction over communications services under Title II is discussed in more detail below with regard to mobile operating systems, Internet search engines, and online video distributors specifically, though these implications would likely extend beyond those three particular categories. Read More