Verizon Communications seems to be softening its stance against net neutrality rules, suggesting it could live with a basic set of regulations.
Verizon had been the only one of the four largest U.S. broadband providers to oppose any new net neutrality rules being considered by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, but in a blog post this week, the company seemed to endorse rules originally proposed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler earlier this year.
Verizon went to court and successfully challenged the FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules, similar in some ways to Wheeler's proposal. Wheeler's original proposal this year would allow broadband providers to engage in "commercially reasonable" traffic management, although he now says he's open to stronger net neutrality protections.
While some tech policy analysts are predicting more lawsuits challenging the FCC no matter what it does with net neutrality, Verizon discounted those predictions in its blog post. The FCC could avoid litigation if it adopts rules under Section 706 of the Communications Act, which gives the agency authority to encourage broadband deployment, Verizon said, instead of reclassifying broadband as a public utility as some advocates of strong net neutrality rules want.
"Don't believe those who say that further litigation is inevitable," wrote Randal Milch, Verizon's general counsel for public policy. "The bottom line is that effective Net Neutrality rules -- without further judicial intervention -- are within reach, if the FCC takes the Section 706 route it originally proposed."
Milch's blog post comes just days after news reports that Wheeler is considering a so-called hybrid net neutrality approach that would regulate back-end transit service as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act.
Verizon has opposed reclassification of broadband under Title II. If the FCC goes that route, it will likely face legal challenges, because "the ISPs, and perhaps some in the tech industry, will have no choice but to fight the sudden reversal of two decades of settled law," Milch wrote.
A Verizon spokesman downplayed the potential shift in policy, saying the company, for years, has voluntarily refrained from selectively blocking Web traffic. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down part of the FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules in January, but judges pointed the FCC to authority it would have under Section 706 to pass new rules, said Ed McFadden, a Verizon spokesman.
With the court rejecting Verizon's challenge of the FCC's authority to pass net neutrality rules, the company sees Section 706 as a better alternative than broadband reclassification, he said. The company's opposition earlier this year to new net neutrality rules was largely focused on reclassification, he added.
Last Thursday, Verizon released a lengthy white paper arguing against Title II reclassification.
While Verizon's position on reclassification remains unchanged, its apparent embrace of rules under Section 706 seem to be evolving. As recently as mid-September, Verizon's lawyers filed comments at the FCC opposed to any new rules.
"The fundamental premise of those urging expansive regulation here -- that there is an openness 'problem' that must be fixed -- is bankrupt," Verizon's lawyers wrote then. "The comments seeking aggressive new rules are long on rhetoric and unsupported 'what ifs,' but utterly bereft of real-world examples in which any American broadband provider has harmed consumers by blocking or degrading traffic at any time since the commission first began considering open Internet rules in the late 2000s."
Verizon, in September, suggested the FCC allow broadband providers flexibility, and resisted any major changes in net neutrality rules. "Because the commission's light-touch approach to Internet regulation has reaped enormous consumer benefits over the last two decades, the commission should stay that course and not adopt any new rules," its lawyers wrote.
Advocates of strong net neutrality rules discounted Verizon's apparent shift this week.
"All of the carriers know they can live with the soft, hole-filled version of 706 rules that Verizon's court victory would require," Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press, said by email. "So rather than softening their actual stance, they're changing their rhetoric without changing their goals."
Updated at 12:00 PM with additional details.