Scandal isn’t slowing down one part of the Republican agenda: The Federal Communications Commission is poised to take the first formal step toward dismantling Obama-era net neutrality rules Thursday, kicking off what’s likely to be a bitter and months-long lobbying battle over the future of internet regulation.
The commission is expected to vote along party lines to begin the process of rolling back the rules, which require internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast to treat all web traffic equally. The telecom industry has criticized the rules as burdensome and unnecessary regulations, but supporters among startups and online tech companies say they ensure ISPs don’t abuse their position as internet gatekeepers to favor some websites over others. The net neutrality order, passed by the FCC’s then-Democratic majority in 2015, represents one of the signature policy achievements of the Obama administration.
Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has sharply criticized the net neutrality rules, and since being appointed chairman by President Donald Trump in January, he’s moved quickly to scrap the legal foundation of the order. He argues that the FCC, in applying utility-style regulation to ISPs, was too heavy-handed and threatened the longstanding tradition of government keeping its hands off the internet.
“For decades before 2015, we had a free and open internet,” the chairman said in April as he unveiled his proposal. “Indeed, the free and open internet developed and flourished under light-touch regulation.”
Net neutrality supporters disagree, arguing that the rules provide important protections for consumers who may not have many options in buying internet service and also allow online companies to thrive, increasing consumer demand for broadband services.
The FCC’s action Thursday doesn’t repeal the rules yet but instead launches a lengthy proceeding that will pit ISPs and conservative groups, which back Pai’s efforts, against left-leaning digital activists and leading tech companies that say the net neutrality rules are crucial to creating a level playing field online. Already, the debate has begun to echo the bitter fight over the issue two years ago, and the number of public comments filed in the proceeding has skyrocketed to 1.6 million at last count.
HBO host John Oliver, whose viral 2014 segment on net neutrality flooded the FCC’s website with comments during the earlier debate, returned to the issue this month to skewer Pai’s proposal. His show generated a new wave of comments. But after the FCC website appeared to sputter under the load, officials there blamed the malfunction on a bombardment of malicious traffic.
The fight quickly turned ugly, with racist messages aimed at Pai’s Indian heritage in the online docket and accusations of spam bots filing a barrage of anti-net neutrality comments.
Pai’s proposal would eliminate the rules’ legal foundation — which allows the FCC to impose utility-style regulation originally written for telephone companies — and jettison a provision giving the FCC broad authority to oversee ISP behavior. It also seeks public input on whether to modify or eliminate rules preventing ISPs from blocking or throttling web traffic, or negotiating paid deals with websites for so-called internet fast lanes.
Supporters of the current approach say it gives the commission the necessary authority to enforce the rules.
"The FCC’s Open Internet rules promote a virtuous cycle of innovation that has catalyzed the growth of startups and fueled the digital economy," said Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, in a statement. “It is disturbing that the agency founded to protect the public interest would instead remove its authority to intervene if internet service providers engage in content discrimination for their own financial benefit.”
Unlike his Democratic predecessor, Pai released the full text of his proposal ahead of the agency’s vote, giving an early jump-start to the fight as groups on both sides launched online campaigns.
Following Thursday’s vote, the commission will seek more comment over the summer before putting together a final set of net neutrality rules, likely in the fall. Pai has said he wants to complete the rulemaking process this year.