FCC repeals 'Net Neutrality' rule despite widespread protests
The Federal Communications Commission has voted to repeal the rules classifying internet providers as public utilities. Critics say this will lead to pay-for-play behavior by providers, while FCC chair argues it will benefit consumers.
The Republican-majority commission voted along party lines on Thursday to repeal the 2015 rules adopted under the Obama administration, which classified ISPs as public utilities under a 1934 law intended to regulate telephone service. FCC chairman Ajit Pai has argued that these “heavy-handed” regulations throttled investment and innovation and harmed poor and rural consumers.
“This is not Thunderdome. The FCC is not killing the internet,” Commissioner Brendan Carr said at the hearing on Thursday. “We are not relying on market forces alone. We are not giving ISPs free reign to dictate your online experience.”
“I dissent from the contempt this agency has shown our citizens in pursuing this path today,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, adding the repeal puts the FCC “on the wrong side of history.”
As Pai was laying out his case for repeal, he was handed a note and abruptly declared a recess. It was reported that the interruption was due to a bomb threat. The commission reconvened about 20 minutes later, after the room was declared safe.
“We need to empower all Americans with digital opportunity, not deny them the benefits of greater access and competition,” said Pai.
Dozens of protesters held a vigil overnight before the FCC headquarters in Washington, DC, accusing Pai of favoring his old employer – telecom and ISP giant Verizon – and wanting to end net neutrality altogether.
Web companies such as Etsy, GitHub, Imgur, Kickstarter, Mozilla, Reddit, Patreon, Pornhub, Pinterest and Tumblr have endorsed the protests, cautioning that their products and services may be throttled by ISPs if net neutrality was repealed.
Net neutrality – also called the open internet – is the concept that internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all online content equally and not give preference to any one digital content provider.
Proponents of the 2015 rules argued that they were necessary to preemptively block ISPs from instituting “pay for play” plans and “fast lanes” for favored content, while throttling other lawful content.
The FCC chair disagreed, saying that the internet “wasn’t broken” in 2015, and that the rules have harmed consumers by throttling innovation and investment, as well as discouraging competition.
“Heavy regulation always benefits the entrenched incumbents much more than the upstarts,” Pai told the conservative Heritage Foundation in November.
A trade association representing many ISPs says that its members are committed to net neutrality, but oppose the restrictive regulations.
“The broadband industry has embraced and fostered the development of an open Internet where companies do not block, throttle or otherwise interfere with the customer’s desire to go wherever they want on the internet. Consumers demand it and, more importantly, it makes good business sense,” the the National Cable and Television Association (NCTA) said in a statement.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is not convinced the ISPs will behave without rules, however. Absent the regulations, “nothing will require ISPs to give the same quality of service even to apps that pay the same amount, let alone those that can’t afford it,” the EFF argued in its opposition to FCC's plans. “Content from an ISP’s business affiliates or favored partners will be able to get a fast lane no matter how much another website or app is willing to pay.”
The NCTA called on Congress to conclusively settle the debate on net neutrality and adopt “bipartisan legislation that will end the decades-old legal controversy and permanently enshrine enforceable open internet principles in statute.”
Net neutrality activists, however, call this a “solution in search of a problem.” According to Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, “Title II enjoys immense bipartisan support amongst the public and the courts agree it provides a solid legal foundation to prevent anti-competitive abuse from ISPs.”
Moments after the vote, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) announced he will lead a multi-state lawsuit against the decision.