For those following the debate around whether to classify broadband access service as a “Title II” telecommunications service under the Communications Act of 1934, you may have heard about a thing called “forbearance.” For those unfamiliar with telecom law lingo, “forbearance” refers to a special magic power that Congress gave the FCC as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — the major edit/update Congress did almost 20 years ago. The 1996 Act added Section 10 (now codified at 47 U.S.C. 160) which gives the FCC the power to say “you know that specific provision of law that Congress passed? We decide it really doesn’t make sense for us to enforce it in some particular case, so we will “forbear” (hence the term ‘forbearance’) from enforcing it.” Or, as the D.C. Circuit explained in a case called Orloff v. Federal Communications Commission, once the FCC invokes forbearance and decides to forbear from a particular statute, the statute for all practical purposes disappears.
For those familiar with the argument, you will also know that the anti-Net Neutrality camp argues that getting the FCC to forbear from any rule is such a horribly complicated and detailed market-by-market analysis that the FCC couldn’t possibly grant the kind of broad, nationwide forbearance we would need to make Title II workable. As someone who actually lived through the 8 years of the Bush Administration and saw almost every single pro-competition provision of the 1996 Act stripped away by forbearance proceedings, I can only say “hah, I wish.”
Anyone who actually troubles to look up cases like Earthlink v. FCC or Ad Hoc Telecommunications Users Committee v. FCC, or a bunch of other FCC and DC Circuit cases that are not that hard to find, you will discover that Forbearance is so easy it makes a consumer protection and rule of law guy like me want to puke. Srsly, the standards on this are so low, and so deferential to the FCC, that if Chairman Wheeler stands up at an open meeting and chants “Broadband is great, competition is good, be deregulated like you should. All in favor say ‘aye!’” — and then at least two other Commissioners vote yes — the DC Circuit will affirm it. Heck, according to ATT, Inc. v. FCC, you can even forbear as against potential obligations that don’t even exist yet.
Not that I expect mere facts to alter firmly held opinions that have become factesque. What Paul Krugman has termed the Very Serious People of telecom have all decided that Title II is a terrible onerous thing and that forbearance is just not going to make it work — despite the fact that the stupid cell phone you’re using couldn’t even have existed if Congress hadn’t made it Title II in 1993 by adding Section 332(c) of the Communications Act and the only non-Title II service we have other than broadband access — cable service — is widely regarded a monopolistic nightmare with all the innovating power of a fossilized brick. But the lawyer and eternal optimist in me keeps trying. So I unpack all this below — with lots of quotes because I know most of y’all not gonna actually click through to the cases.
Besides, I do a My Little Pony (MLP) mashup below because “Broadband is magic!” And that always cracks me up. . . .