FCC planning to roll back net neutrality rules
Thursday, April 27, 2017
A little more than two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unveiled and adopted its Open Internet Order, which guaranteed net neutrality for internet users, but also controversially regulated the internet as an effective utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.
Now, it appears those rules are set to come to a quick, albeit somewhat expected, end. On April 27, at an event in Washington for two regulation-opposing groups, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his plan for rolling back the Open Internet Order. Pai, an existing member on the Commission for almost the past five years, was appointed chair in January by President Donald Trump.
First and foremost, Pai looks to reclassify broadband providers under Title I as an "information service" instead of under Title II as "common carriers." That will also eliminate rules on those companies regarding the blocking and slowing down of content on the internet. Pai's FCC can’t do this immediately, but has kicked off the process by publishing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) today.
That NPRM will head to a Commission vote on May 18. That looks to be a formality, with Republicans Pai and Michael O'Rielly holding a 2-1 partisan edge over the lone Democratic commissioner, Mignon Clyburn. After that vote, the proposal will have a public comment period before a possible final vote on new rules late this year.
In-depth specifics of the potential new rules aren't known yet, but Pai hinted at going back to regulatory frameworks in the recent past, promising to "reverse the mistake of Title II and return to the light-touch regulatory framework that served our nation so well during the Clinton administration, Bush administration and the first six years of the Obama administration."
Recently, Pai has floated the idea of getting internet providers to voluntarily agree to enforce net neutrality as company policy, while leaving the enforcement of open and equitable internet principles to the Federal Trade Commission.
That type of hands-off approach isn't likely to go over well with Silicon Valley companies like Netflix, Google and Facebook, who could all see their services and sites potentially slowed down by ISPs whose feet aren't held to the fire by the FCC. The voluntary approach might be less likely after Pai met with some tech execs in California during the third week of April to seek feedback about the rules changes, but the chair declined to go into specifics about what was said or agreed upon in the meetings.
One thing that is certain is that the net neutrality rollback will be fought tooth and nail by some politicians and consumer advocacy groups. Before Pai's speech Wednesday, three U.S. senators and representatives from groups such as Free Press held a news conference condemning the reversal of what they see as necessary and productive regulation on the country's dominant ISPs.
A chief argument of Pai's to reverse Title II regulation is that it's preventing broadband investment to the tune of $5.1 billion. However, one of the senators at the news conference speaking out in favor of current regs, Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, pointed to census statistics that say investment in the sector was actually up from 2014 to 2015, the year the Title II decision was made and went into effect.
Pai's speech gave several mentions to smaller, regional ISPs' plans for growth and investment that he says have been stifled by Title II. Yet the 2015 regulations exempted ISPs under 100,000 customers from net neutrality privacy regulations, and that number has since been increased to under 250,000 customers.
Pai's announcement is the latest chapter in what feels like a never-ending net neutrality saga, dating back to the Clinton administration. However, Pai's promise to roll back the current FCC rules has its direct roots in the 2010 Open Internet Order under then-chair Julius Genachowski.
That order marked the first time the FCC had officially regulated net neutrality and thus set off legal appeals, which culminated in a federal appeals court striking down the net neutrality rules in 2014 after a challenge from Verizon. However, that ruling held that the FCC was under its authority to regulate broadband internet, just not in the manner in which Genachowski's commission acted.
Pai's predecessor, Tom Wheeler, was behind two high-profile FCC actions related to net neutrality, the first of which was a proposal that seemed to contradict the entire principle of net neutrality by leaving open the possibility of "fast lanes," or paid priority access to certain services or internet providers. That proposal attracted a whopping 4 million comments on the Commission's website in the run-up to the 2015 Open Internet Order.
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