Net Neutrality's Strange Dueling Partners

Confused? Join the club.

Try unraveling this.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Whose side are you on in the battle over net neutrality?

Are you with the Center for Boundless Innovation in Technology or the Electronic Frontier Foundation? The Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council or the Open Internet Civil Rights Coalition? The Progressive Policy Institute or the New America Foundation? The National Association of Manufacturers or the Computer and Communications Industry Association? Samsung or Samsung? Sprint or Sprint?

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is hearing oral arguments today in United States Telecom Association et. al. v. Federal Communications Commission, the court challenge to the FCC’s ruling last February that broadband internet is a “telecommunications service” subject to potentially strict utility-style regulation.

That decision was the latest in a series since 2008 intended to secure what the FCC has called the “open Internet” (net neutrality is a term used by others) by preventing broadband providers from playing favorites among those who stream movies, sell Yoda Christmas sweaters and provide multitudes of other services and goods over their networks. The previous FCC rules had been thrown out by the D.C. Circuit because the agency classified broadband as an “information service,” and information services aren’t supposed to be regulated much. Hence the switch to “telecommunications service” (the terms are from the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996).

Net Neutrality

The oral arguments will be made mostly by FCC lawyers on the one side and lawyers for cable and telecommunications companies on the other. It is in the amicus briefs filed with the court that I found most of the names above. Just to make things easier, the first organization in each of my pairs is opposed to the FCC and its Internet rules, the second is in favor. The confusing nature of the pairs is a product partly of the creativity of interest-group naming in the U.S., partly of the tangled politics and economics of net neutrality.

The Center for Boundless Innovation in Technology (amicus brief here) was founded last year by Fred Campbell , an FCC staffer during the George W. Bush administration and former head of a wireless industry trade association; the Electronic Frontier Foundation (amicus brief herearose in 1990 out of the early online forum, with founders who included Lotus Development co-founder Mitch Kapor and Grateful Dead lyricist/cattle-rancher John Perry Barlow. The Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council and the Open Internet Civil Rights Coalition (amicus briefs here and here) are both a bit harder to figure out, but the first seems to be focused on getting more people online while the second is about media freedom.

The Progressive Policy Institute and New America are think tanks identified with the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, but the PPI has a staffer and a senior fellow (the organization itself didn’t file a brief) who have argued that net neutrality will damp investment in broadband and signed an amicus brief opposing the FCC. New America's Open Technology Institute, meanwhile, is part of a group that has intervened in the case in support of the FCC. New America shares a chairman with Alphabet, the owner of Google, a consistent net neutrality backer. Google, meanwhile, is a member of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which filed an amicus brief in support of the FCC. So are Samsung and Sprint. But Samsung is also belongs to Mobile Future, an organization that counts AT&T, Cisco and Verizon among its members and filed an amicus brief in opposition to the FCC. Samsung is also a “supplier member” of CTIA, formerly known as the Cellular Telephone Industries Association, of which Sprint is of course a “carrier member.” CTIA is a one of the groups (part of the “et. al.” after U.S. Telecom Association) suing the FCC.

I’m not sure what the significance of all this is. Mainly I just thought it was funny. And maybe, if you’re still confused about net neutrality, it will be a solace to know that Samsung and Sprint apparently still are, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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