For those who have spent more than a decade fighting for stricter regulation of the Internet, the official publication of the rules in the Federal Register, expected as early as Monday, will give reality to their latest victory. For those opposed, it is likely to touch off a flurry of lawsuits.
The rules, approved in February by the Federal Communications Commission after months of heated debate, will forbid Internet service providers to speed up, slow down or block a consumer’s access to any particular content. Barring any court intervention – some experts think that is unlikely, given the challenge of proving immediate harm – the rules will go into effect 60 days after publication.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” said Maura Corbett, a supporter of the new rules and founder of the Glen Echo Group, an advocacy group focused on technology policy. “It’s been a really long time that we’ve been defending this revolution, and it’s taken a village.”
There was often disagreement in that village, though, about what to call the cause.
For 20 years, Corbett has fought for the principles that have come to be known as net neutrality. The term, coined in 2003 by Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor, refers to the concept of treating all content on the Internet neutrally and prohibiting a provider like AT&T or Comcast from manipulating access to any specific site or charging companies like Netflix for faster delivery of their content.
Corbett said advocates of stricter regulations for Internet providers had spent years seeking to make the lofty, abstract principles of the movement accessible to the general public. Some tried to oust “net neutrality” from the vernacular.
“We tried to rebrand it and call it the ’open Internet,’” she said.
Others put forth options like “save the Internet” and “net freedom.”
“But net neutrality, God bless Tim Wu, it stuck,” Corbett said.
Wu shrugged off the “dozen or so” efforts to replace the name he popularized, noting that his coinage had been accidental, in spite of his early work in marketing.
“I think it stuck because of the two N’s in a row,” he said Friday. “People love alliteration.”
In the first draft of the law review article in which he introduced the term, he called it Internetwork neutrality, which was chopped down twice -to network neutrality, then to net neutrality.
“It sort of sounds like it’s something real as opposed to a slogan,” he said.
Still, supporters of the principles know that the name will be irrelevant to the legal challenges that are widely expected. For opponents of the regulation, publication of the rules will start another 60-day countdown: the period of time in which lawsuits can be filed.
The first 10 days after the rules are published in the Federal Register will be particularly significant, said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that focuses on Internet policy. All legal complaints filed in that time will be considered together, and a lottery will determine which federal court will hear that unified case. Some opponents of the rules are expected to file lawsuits in conservative jurisdictions, in hopes that a court more likely to rule against the FCC will be assigned the case.
Many challengers are expected to take issue with the agency’s reclassifying Internet service providers as telecommunications rather than information services, subjecting them to utility-style regulation under Title II of the Communications Act. Many opponents have said they object, not to the principles of net neutrality but to the Title II classification.
Two lawsuits regarding the rules were filed last month, by the U.S. Telecom Association, a trade group that represents some of the nation’s largest Internet providers, and Alamo Broadband, a small provider based in Texas. They came earlier than many experts expected, filed on the off chance that the release of the full text of the rules, in March, would be interpreted as their official publication date, rather than their printing in the Federal Register.
Both the U.S. Telecom Association and Alamo Broadband are expected to refile their complaints after the rules are published in the Federal Register, and several additional suits are likely to come from parties like CTIA, the wireless industry association, which has said the regulations could have a “potentially devastating impact” on the economy.
In a speech at Texas A&M University last fall, the president of Alamo Broadband, Joe Portman, criticized the impending regulations.
“It’s pretty much a terrible idea born of good intentions,” he said, arguing that it addressed hypothetical harms. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Still, champions of the rules are undeterred by challenges to come.
Corbett said the movement’s moment in the spotlight has invigorated many veterans of the cause.
“We’ve gotten validation that people are paying attention, and it matters,” she said, noting that there had been numerous victories and defeats in the past 15 years. “We’ve won a battle, but it would be foolish to think it was the whole war.”