The future of net neutrality is now a political waiting game

"There's one thing we can all agree on up here, I'm sure," Tom Wheeler, chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said Thursday morning at the agency's February meeting. "And that is that we cannot possibly imagine what's going to happen next on the Internet."

A few minutes later, Wheeler called the vote that decided the regulatory fate of the World Wide Web, a process years in the making. And after a declaration that "the ayes have it" in a 3-2 vote along party lines, the FCC approved the new open Internet rules.

For the average American, there's not much that will change. The Internet will now be regulated as a common carrier under Title II of 1934's Communications Act, which would allow the FCC to manage Internet providers as a public utility. This reclassification effectively bans Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from charging extra for Internet "fast lanes" or from discriminating against certain websites when they transmit information on their networks. It's a huge win for net neutrality advocates, and it's a policy that has widespread support across the American electorate. The concept is even popular among those who consider themselves "very conservative," according to a poll by the Internet Freedom Business Alliance.

President Obama even congratulated the agency after the vote, asserting that the decision "will protect innovation and create a level playing field for the next generation of entrepreneurs." The president also extended his thanks to the over four million Americans who provided the FCC with their own pro-neutrality comments.

But much as the FCC would want to wipe their hands of further debate, it's not over yet. Wheeler's words are true: it is incredibly difficult to predict the next iteration of the Internet--or of the dispute on how to control it.

The FCC vote has started the ball rolling on a neutral Internet reality. But there are still potential roadblocks--one that has, at its helm, a Republican strategy backed by a trove of private sector lobbying funds.

Though the GOP rallying cry of net neutrality as an "Obamacare for the Internet" had limited policy effect, several Republican voices in Congress have hinted at legislative action in the works.

And in the lead-up to the net neutrality vote, ISPs argued that the new policy would choke potential revenue streams and prevent innovation-- ushering in a virtual dark age of telecommunications policy. The reactions after the vote didn't signal any change in their tone.

"What doesn't make sense, and has never made sense, is to take a regulatory framework developed for Ma Bell in the 1930s and make her great grandchildren, with technologies and options undreamed of eighty years ago, live under it," said Jim Cicconi, an AT&T senior executive vice president, in response to the FCC vote. AT&T was one of the biggest spenders in the lobbying fight against net neutrality policies, according to the watchdogs at Sunlight Foundation.

And in-fighting among FCC commissioners didn't end even as the meeting started.

"It is sad to witness this morning the FCC's unprecedented attempts to replace that freedom with government control," Arjit Pai, a Republican commissioner, lamented before he cast his vote. "It shouldn't be this way."

The next steps, then, could pit the regulatory power of the FCC--and the nation's chief executive-- against industry might and judicial rulings.

So what happens now?

    1. We wait.

    We don't know exactly what the FCC's new net neutrality order will say.

    "We are still waiting to see the details of the order," Barbara van Schewick, a Stanford University law professor and director of the school's Center for Internet and Society, told CBS News. "There are still a lot of questions right now."

    There's a waiting period of at least several days during which the federal agency will add edits. The FCC will also consider the dissenting opinions of the commissioners who voted against the reclassification.
    One of the most fundamental questions that remains is just how far these rules will reach. The answer will set the stage for further action--what lawsuits from large Internet Service Providers will target and how Congress will engage with the agency.

    An FCC spokesperson confirmed to CBS News that the details, while not yet public, will be released on the website in a few weeks, following the additional review of the dissenting opinions. But it's only after the order is officially released and added to the federal register that any movement--legislative or judicial--can be taken.

    2. Prepare for congressional action--or more inaction.

    Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-South Dakota, came out swinging against the legality of the FCC's latest moves.

    On the morning of the agency's net neutrality vote, Thune criticized Tom Wheeler for his abrupt policy change after the Obama administration publicly urged the FCC to consider the open Internet rules in November of last year.

    "He turned on a dime," Thune said at a National Journal event Thursday. Thune has already called an oversight hearing set for mid-March meant to "directly question the chairman about the overreaching broadband order." All five commissioners will be called to testify.

    And in fact, bipartisan legislation--the golden fleece of congressional committees-- has already circulated from both chambers. Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee proposed in January a draft of legislation that would effectually replace the FCC's new rules. It was supposed to be a less far-reaching version of net neutrality, and according to Senate Commerce spokesperson Frederick Hill, even those from across the aisle were considering bipartisan legislation rolling back the rule.

    "It would be much preferable for us to hammer out a compromise here in Congress," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said before the FCC vote, according to the Wall Street Journal.

    But the possibility for compromise in a Republican-led Congress is limited.

    "It's very unlikely they would pass anything," Kevin Werbach, former FCC counsel and current University of Pennsylvania business professor, said. "It's even more unlikely that the president would sign it."

    So get ready for more hearings regardless, Werbach warns. It's political red meat, and the GOP has already tipped their hand with plans to make a stink of the president improperly influencing the agency.

    But it's not just a question of replacing the FCC's net neutrality rule via legislation.

    Another option for Congress is the possibility of defunding the federal agency altogether. In a move not dissimilar from the current Department of Homeland Security funding spat, the legislative branch could turn to the Congressional Review Act to expedite an evaluation of the net neutrality regulation.

    "The GOP could do a lot of things to pressure the FCC," Werbach says.

    And the Senate Commerce Committee is "open to other directions and ideas," Hill told CBS News.

    But even if there's no movement in the government body most known for its gridlock, there's always the judicial branch. So...

    3. Get ready for lawsuits.

    While an FCC spokesperson was hesitant to speculate on the legal battles they might find themselves engaged in, AT&T has already "previewed" a possible lawsuit.

    And language from broadband giant Verizon also suggests that the net neutrality fight is not over.

    "The FCC today chose to change the way the commercial Internet has operated since its creation," Verizon Senior Vice President Michael Glover said. "Changing a platform that has been so successful should be done, if at all, only after careful policy analysis, full transparency, and by the legislature, which is constitutionally charged with determining policy. As a result, it is likely that history will judge today's actions as misguided."

    The FCC's record in court is spotty at best. They were dinged in January 2014 for the agency's first open Internet proposals, after a lengthy court battle with Verizon.

    Though van Schewick, the Stanford law professor, doesn't know how much this will effectively stymie the new order.

    "The good news is that the FCC's rules will likely be upheld in court," she said. "The Communications Act puts the rules on a solid legal foundation."

    The federal agency also believes the new rules will stand up to judicial review.

    An FCC spokesperson told CBS News also that the Verizon v. FCC case will, in fact, provide a "strong legal foundation" for the new rules, should they be challenged in court.

    "The key is that [the vote] happened," the FCC spokesperson said. "There's process things in terms of it becoming implemented."

    Net neutrality is as much a game of politics as it is of policy--and one that's already turning into potent 2016 fodder.

    Republican FCC commissioner Arjit Pai, one of the two who voted against the new rules, slammed President Obama as the reason for these rules.

    "We are flip-flopping for one reason and one reason only: President Obama told us to do so," Pai said Thursday.

    But until the rules are officially published, there's nothing to do but wait and try to imagine what the future of the Internet could look like.