The Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission is ready to roll back net neutrality rules, and give telecoms the authority to dictate what users get to see — and how much they pay — to access certain websites.
On Wednesday, FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a one-time attorney for Verizon, officially released his final proposal to repeal the net neutrality regulations enacted under President Obama in 2015. The 210-page document reclassifies broadband internet as a “telecommunications service” instead of as a utility, which would give internet providers near-total control over how their customers get to access the internet. The proposal is on the agenda for the FCC’s December 14 open meeting, where a GOP majority on the commission will vote the new regulations into effect.
Under Pai’s proposal, the FCC would no longer have the authority to make open internet rules for broadband internet providers. Instead, these companies would agree to set of “open internet” principles, and the Federal Trade Commission would enforce violations of these principles. Critics however, say that this new policy would still allow telecoms to mess with internet speeds or build “fast lanes” prioritizing their own services.
Pai has repeatedly called for the introduction of such a “light-touch” regulatory regime, and he gave a litany of reasons for why he’s pushing it through in a Tuesday Wall Street Journal op-ed. A key rationale: net neutrality has disincentivized broadband companies from investing in internet infrastructure, exacerbating the “digital divide” in America between poorer rural areas and better-connected suburbs and cities.
“In the two years after the FCC’s decision, broadband network investment dropped more than 5.6 percent — the first time a decline has happened outside of a recession,” Pai claimed in the op-ed.
But experts have questioned whether there has been a drop in infrastructure spending at all, and point out that broadband companies have told their investors on multiple occasions that the 2015 net neutrality rules didn’t hurt their business.
The new rules rollback would allow them to charge customers more or slow internet users’ speeds for different types of content, or give specific companies an advantage by including them in base content bundles. This would be a pretty natural instinct for a broadband provider like Comcast, which owns movie studios and TV networks through its NBCUniversal subsidiary, and could promote its own content over its rivals. This practice, called “zero-rating,” already exists in the U.S., but you can look to Spain or Portugal to see a more extreme version of this, in which mobile internet providers can charge extra for streaming music or using messaging apps.
Because net neutrality is politically popular with Americans, even if they don’t quite know what it is, the new FCC proposal includes another provision designed to minimize blowback to its passage. The plan removes rulemaking authority over broadband companies from state governments, which means that individual states won’t be able to step in where the FCC is backing away.
Given what happened earlier this year to the Republicans who successfully passed an internet privacy rollback, these hardball politics make sense. After winning a narrow and widely unpopular vote in the House to overturn rules that prevented telecoms from selling internet user data to third parties, more than a dozen state governments started evaluating ways to implement their own such rules.