The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to eliminate open internet transparency protections for millions of consumers, in the Trump administration's most overt salvo yet in its nascent campaign to dismantle net neutrality protections.
As a result of Thursday's action, "thousands" of small and medium-sized internet service providers (ISPs) around the country are no longer required to give their customers detailed information about broadband prices, speeds and fees, according to the FCC.
The newly-rolled-back disclosure requirements, which were designed to help consumers make informed decisions when selecting an ISP, were a key part of the FCC's 2015 policy safeguarding net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible.
Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer who was installed by the Trump administration to lead the agency last month, framed Thursday's action as a move to "relieve thousands of smaller broadband providers from onerous reporting obligations."
Pai, who has claimed to be a champion of "transparency," asserted that removing the disclosure requirements would allow ISPs to save money that can then be used for broadband deployment.
But consumer advocates blasted the move as a brazen attempt to undermine net neutrality protections that open internet advocates say are essential for economic growth, civic empowerment, and free speech.
"This represents yet another in a series of steps being taken to jettison pro-consumer initiatives, and we should not stand silent as consumer protections 'go gentle into that good night,'" Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a longtime open internet advocate who voted against the move, said at the agency's monthly meeting on Thursday.
"Consumers deserve truth in pricing information."
"Consumers deserve truth in pricing information," Sen. Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement. "Instead of allowing ISPs to hide pricing information, the FCC should promote transparency so subscribers have all the background they need to make educated decisions about their broadband service."
FCC Chairman Pai has made no secret of his distaste for the FCC's net neutrality policy, which prohibits ISPs from favoring their own services or discriminating against rivals. Earlier this month, Pai halted the agency's inquiry into zero-rating, a controversial practice in which ISPs exempt certain services from data caps, effectively favoring those offerings at the expense of rivals.
Open internet advocates say such zero-rating practices violate open internet principles by creating the kind of discriminatory online environment that the FCC's net neutrality policy was designed to prevent.
Thursday's FCC action is the clearest signal yet that Pai and his Republican allies in Congress are determined to undermine net neutrality protections, an outcome that would hand a major victory to the nation's largest cable and phone companies, including Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.
"Here's how cost-benefit analysis works in the Trump administration and at the Pai FCC: If any favored lobby like the cable industry claims that rules cost them money, the agency will zap those rules—without any regard for their benefits," said Matt Wood, policy director at DC-based public interest group Free Press.
Broadband providers with fewer than 100,000 subscribers were already exempt from the net neutrality transparency requirements. But Thursday's action boosts the exemption limit to companies with as many as 250,000 subscribers, a substantial increase that could affect as many as 9.7 million consumers, mostly in rural and underserved communities, according to Sen. Markey's office.
By increasing the exemption limit, Pai has eliminated the transparency requirements for many firms that are actually local or regional subsidiaries of the nation's largest broadband companies, which remain subject to the disclosure rules, according to FCC Commissioner Clyburn.
"Many of the nation's largest broadband providers are actually holding companies, comprised of many smaller operating companies," said Clyburn. "So what today's Order does is exempt these companies' affiliates that have under 250,000 connections by declining to aggregate the connection count at the holding company level."
In other words, although Thursday's action does not overtly affect the nation's largest broadband companies, it could have the effect of covertly eliminating disclosure rules for smaller companies in which the broadband giants have a financial stake.
Not surprisingly, the American Cable Association, an industry trade group that represents hundreds of smaller and medium-sized ISPs around the country, praised the elimination of the transparency rules, which the group had long been lobbying against. "ACA thanks Chairman Pai and Commissioner O'Rielly for acting so swiftly to remove the uncertainty small ISPs have lived under for the past two months," ACA CEO Matthew M. Polka said in a statement.
Thursday's FCC action represents just the beginning of the Trump FCC's assault on net neutrality, according to tech policy experts. Public interest groups and open internet advocates are bracing for what could be an epic political battle over the issue, with some activists pledging direct action in the streets to protect the principle.