The Federal Communication Commission on Thursday voted to end what its Republican members called the “heavy-handed” Obama-administration net neutrality rules adopted two years ago, a move that critics say will leave poorer, often rural communities at a disadvantage when it comes to competing in the digital age.
Speaking just before the vote, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called such concerns “apocalyptic rhetoric” and said the move will spur investment in broadband infrastructure.
“Let’s be clear,” Pai told a crowded meeting room at FCC headquarters in Washington. “After today’s vote, Americans will still be able to access websites they want to visit (and) there will still be cops on the beat guarding a free and open internet,” just as it was before 2015 when the net neutrality rules were adopted. All three Republican commissioners voted in favor of the plan, while the two Democrats voted against it.
According to an FCC release, Pai’s plan – the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” – returns the FCC to a “traditional light-touch framework” that was in place until 2015. Today’s vote will allow internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and ATT to speed up service for some websites and apps and block or slow down others. It also gives ISPs broad authority to set fees and services, and calls for them to be treated as information suppliers rather than regulated like a public utility.
Today’s vote also restores broadband consumer protection authority to the Federal Trade Commission, “enabling it to apply its extensive expertise to provide uniform online protections against unfair, deceptive, and anti-competitive practices.” Critics says the FTC is too weak for the job.
When he introduced his plan, Pai said that since 2015, “"broadband investment has fallen for two years in a row — the first time that that's happened outside a recession in the Internet era. And new services have been delayed or scuttled by a regulatory environment that stifles innovation."
“Under my proposal,” Pai said, “the federal government will stop micromanaging the Internet. Instead the FCC would simply require Internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate.”
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said today’s vote put the FCC on the wrong side of history.
“As a result of today’s misguided action, our broadband providers will get extraordinary new power from this agency. They will have the power to block websites, throttle services and censor online content. They will have the right to discriminate and favor the internet traffic of those companies with whom they have pay-for-play arrangements and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road.”
Rosenworcel and the commission’s other Democrat, Mignon Clyburn, said the FCC vote does not mean the end of net neutrality, suggesting that it could be revived by the courts, legislative action, or a new set of commissioners. And several states including New York and Washington have indicated lawsuits are in the works
NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association, which represents more than 850 independent telecommunications companies, gave cautionary approval to the FCC action.
“NTCA has said for some time that the process leading up to today’s order offered an important chance to get rules of the road right after the net neutrality regime adopted in 2015 imposed heavy-handed obligations exclusively on retail broadband providers while ignoring the roles and responsibilities of the many other actors that affect consumers’ online experiences.
“We therefore hope that today’s order will not be an end unto itself, but rather a step in a continuing and much-needed conversation about how to strike the right balance in ensuring seamless interconnection among all entities that contribute to consumers’ online experiences and how to enable better access to robust and affordable broadband for all Americans.”
As today’s meeting began, scores of demonstrators had gathered outside FCC offices to protest what they were calling the “death of the internet.” Later, just before the commissioners voted, security forces cleared the room briefly and a bomb-sniffing dog was brought in to check things out. One officer said there had been a report of a “suspicious briefcase.” Nothing was found.