With the Federal Communications Commission poised to roll back net neutrality regulations and give internet service providers more control over their networks, the legal profession is uncertain how the change will impact lawyers. However, many are bracing for an internet that has slower speeds and higher costs.
Lawyers, as a whole, are heavily dependent on broadband. They rely on connectivity to file motions and briefs with the courts, pull government documents, research databases and communicate with clients and other attorneys.
Some speculate that a subjective internet could mean attorneys will lose efficiencies when they pull out their laptops, tablets and smartphones, possibly forcing them to carefully consider the cases they will take and how they will structure their fees. Also, they might not see as much software and tech equipment geared to the practice of law.
“We’re living in a world where net neutrality has been the general rule and it is a little hard to imagine (what comes next) if we don’t know how much throttling will happen,” said Benjamin Keele, research and instruction librarian for the Ruth Lilly Law Library at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
Net neutrality is the term given to the Obama-era regulations that required internet service providers to keep the internet open and accessible by everyone. The rules were championed as preventing providers from blocking, throttling and increasing the price to prioritize content. Internet service providers could not favor content providers who had paid more to have their material zip through out at the fastest speeds.
The Trump administration and advocates of abolishing net neutrality maintain removing government regulations will allow the internet to flourish. Describing the pending regulatory rollback as restoring freedom in the cyber world, the FCC claims the ISPs will be more innovative and invest more in their networks under a “light-touch regulatory framework.”
In an April speech at The Newseum in Washington, D.C., FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the administration’s intention to undo net neutrality. He said reversing course would give more Americans access to high-speed internet, create more jobs, boost competition and protect users’ online privacy.
Changes are certain to come once the net neutrality rules are abolished. Keele noted that because telecommunications companies have spent a lot of time and money fighting the regulations in the federal courts, they will probably take advantage of their freedom. The extent of the disruption could range from having a mildly annoying delay when opening email to the more bothersome chore of waiting a long time for websites to load or files to download.
Attorney Charles Leone, chair of the Indiana State Bar Association’s Technology Committee, said the abolishment of net neutrality could be concerning. But the committee has not taken a position on the potential abandonment of the net neutrality rules, because what the FCC will ultimately do and what the impact will be are unclear.
“It’s just that until we understand a bit more about what will happen, there’s not much we can do about it,” said Leone of Leone Halpin LLP in South Bend.
Rippling down to clients
When Peter Racher made a trip to the IU McKinney law library recently to consult the reference book Moore’s Federal Practice, he was reminded of how ubiquitous the internet has become to his profession. The librarian told the Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP partner that the material was only available online.
At his firm that focuses in part on environmental issues, the lawyers constantly turn to their computers for research. They pull reports from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s virtual file cabinet, and they access databases and filings from an array of government agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s inconceivable that lawyers could function without access,” Racher said.
A major concern is that without net neutrality, ISPs will provide high speed only if the content companies pay for it. Companies that do not or cannot meet the price could find their websites, programs and services are slower to load or blocked completely.
Some attorneys believe government websites are most vulnerable. Federal and state agencies would probably not allocate more money to cover the increased costs, so their databases and documents would be relegated to the internet’s slow lane. Retrieving court opinions and filing motions could take much longer.
A representative of the Indiana Office of Court Technology was unable to comment for this article.
Abolishing net neutrality is a “terrible idea,” said Ray Ontko, president of Doxpop LLC, which provides an array of court and public records online. “Let there be no mistake, net neutrality is a good thing.”
Any negative impact of a new net regulatory regime will certainly ripple down to the clients. If attorneys have to pay more for internet service or subscription-based resources such as LexisNexis, those costs likely would get passed along. Also, if attorneys spend more for basic internet and wait longer to connect, they might not be able handle complex litigation or transactions, and they probably would be unable to offer alternative fee arrangements.
The hardest hit in this scenario would be low-income clients who rely on legal aid. With more legal services being offered online, such as the Indiana Bar Foundation’s Free Legal Answers and the American Bar Association’s new Legal Checkup for Veterans, indigent individuals who cannot link to high-speed broadband would be shut off from getting advice and counsel.
Helping or hindering innovation?
The FCC asserts that dialing back the net neutrality rules will bring a return of the free and open internet that flourished for nearly 20 years from the mid-1990s. Innovations that changed how people work, learn, receive health care, communicate and enjoy entertainment will bubble up once again.
Chad Burton, CEO of the legal tech firm CuroLegal disagrees. He believes the rollback of regulations will slow not only the development of new technology but also attorneys’ adapt-ing of internet-based technology. Lawyers just starting to leverage the internet to deliver their services or to move their client files to the cloud could become scared about losing access and take a step back. Also, they might become more hesitant to embrace any computer-aided tools designed to help them work more efficiently.
Moreover, attorneys who have ideas for new software might forego bringing those inventions to market. Burton said a vast majority of legal startups are created by lawyers tinkering on the side, but if the cost of accessing the internet to develop a web-based technology is too expensive, innovation could dwindle.
Burton does see a potential positive impact from any rollback. Namely, the struggle brought on by reduced access could provide a common rallying cry and inspire lawyers to join together to fight for an internet that does not play favorites.•