On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to roll back net neutrality regulations that were instituted in 2015, a decision that was met with significant outcry from legislators, advocacy groups, and consumers. Under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s declaratory ruling, report, and order — Restoring Internet Freedom — the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will now be the main regulatory body policing the practices of Internet service providers (ISPs).
In March 2015, the FCC released 400 pages of net neutrality rules, in which the commission reclassified broadband Internet service as a public utility, subject to Title II regulation. The FCC issued the regulations in an effort to protect an open Internet by placing bans on the practices of blocking; “throttling,” that is, impairing or degrading the delivery of content to a user; and paid prioritization, which allows a provider to accept payment to prioritize content, applications, services, or devices. At the time, the FCC also stressed that it would not use Title II to set prices for broadband services, nor would it result in the imposition of any new federal taxes or fees.
Late last week, the FCC voted to change the classification of the Internet back to an “Information Service,” rather than a public utility, which is how it had been classified until March 2015. When it instituted net neutrality, the recent declaratory ruling noted, the FCC “abandoned almost 20 years of precedent by reclassifying broadband Internet access service as a telecommunications service subject to myriad regulatory obligations.” The order would “reverse this misguided and legally flawed approach and restore broadband Internet access service to its Title I information service classification.” Under Title I, the FTC would police the privacy practices of Internet service providers.
The vote comes after the FCC rebuffed calls from New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and 28 U.S. senators, including Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY and Senate Minority Leader), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), to delay the vote to roll back net neutrality rules. In a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the senators said they were concerned that the public comments that had been filed prior to the new ruling may be filled with fake comments, as reported by The Hill. Schneiderman has been investigating the possibility of fraudulent comments for the past six months, the article noted.
Following the FCC vote, Schneiderman stated that he plans to file a multistate lawsuit to roll back the recent vote, as does Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, as NBC News reported. Schneiderman said in a statement that by going forward with the vote and ignoring the investigation into potentially fake comments, the FCC had made “a mockery of government integrity” and was rewarding “the very perpetrators who scammed the system to advance their own agenda.”
In addition, a number of public interest groups — including Public Knowledge and the National Hispanic Media Coalition — also promised to file a suit. The Internet Association, the trade group that represents such tech firms as Google and Facebook, said it also was considering legal action, as reported by the New York Times.
Carla White, director of Gratitude Labs, an app design company in South Dakota, told NBC affiliate KDLT: “I don’t see how this is beneficial to the general public. All my classes are online. All my team is online. Everything I do is based on streaming data over the Internet. As a small business owner, it’s definitely a concern, because they can throttle or discriminate against certain content. They say they won’t, but they absolutely have the tools to do it.”
Some tech experts told the Times that, without the FCC overseeing ISPs, some companies might create new tiers of services, with new offerings, such as faster tiers of service for online businesses willing and able to pay for it. Some of those costs could be passed on to consumers.
However, Chairman Pai defended the vote as being in the best interest of the Internet moving forward because it would allow telecom companies to provide a wider variety of offerings to consumers. “We are helping consumers and promoting competition,” Mr. Pai said, as reported by the Times. “Broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially to underserved areas.”
And ISPs such as AT&T and Comcast have promised consumers that their experiences online would not change, the Times noted. “There is a lot of misinformation that this is the ‘end of the world as we know it’ for the Internet,” Comcast’s senior executive vice president, David Cohen, wrote in a blog post this week. “Our internet service is not going to change.”
ISPs may have a motivation to maintain the status quo — at least for now — as the net neutrality repeal has set the stage for Congress to legislate net neutrality regulations and make them law. Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said the vote, which he believes is bad for consumers, means it will “inevitably take the battle over net neutrality back to the courtroom and Congress,” he told NBC News. “Without these rules, your Internet provider can charge a toll for any website it chooses. The biggest companies can most likely afford these new costs, but smaller companies could be left out in the cold, and that fundamentally changes the level playing field of the Internet as we’ve known it.”
Pai insisted that a free market was the better choice to regulate ISPs’ conduct, and, in cases of bad conduct, the FCC remains the “cop on the beat,” NBC News noted. “We require very robust transparency of Internet service providers. We also empower the Federal Trade Commission to take action against any competitive conduct from any company that might try to instigate that.”