President Trump's Federal Communications Commission formally launched its long-awaited attack on US net neutrality rules on Thursday, initiating a process that public interest advocates say will hand the broadband industry a major victory at the expense of consumers.
By a partisan vote of 2-1 at the FCC's May open meeting, the Republican-controlled agency voted to approve a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) designed to dismantle the Obama-era FCC's landmark 2015 Open Internet order, which established strong federal rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all content on the internet should be treated equally.
The FCC's vote, which was spearheaded by Trump's recently-appointed FCC chief, former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, starts a process that will take many months. The public will now have until July 17 to comment on the NPRM; reply comments will be due on August 16, unless the FCC extends the process. After that, a final decision on the NPRM could take several more months.
"The FCC is simply seeking comment on these proposals," Pai said at the meeting. "Over the next 90 days, the American public will then have a chance to share its views on them. And in the time to come, the FCC will follow the facts and the law where they take us."
Public interest advocates slammed the FCC's vote as a brazen corporate giveaway that will allow internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T and Verizon to favor their own internet content, discriminate against rivals, or provide online fast lanes to deep-pocketed companies at the expense of startups.
"The new FCC seems determined to ignore the evidence and the wishes of the vast majority of the public, in order to advance the desires of a few powerful ISPs," Corynne McSherry, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital rights group, said in a statement. "Allowing ISPs to take advantage of their control over your internet connection to shape your internet experience would be bad for the open internet and all of us who use it to connect with the world."
Former Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copps, a longtime public interest champion who now serves as special advisor at Common Cause, ridiculed Pai's Orwellian title for the net neutrality rollback order—"Restoring Internet Freedom"—and called the Republican justification for the move "just plain rubbish."
"The language used to discuss Chairman Pai's plan implies the opposite of what the proposal will do, which is make the internet most free and open only to those with the deepest pockets while the industry giants rake in still more money," Copps said in a statement.
"The FCC's love affair with a few large ISPs is going to be a heartbreaker for consumers."
Public interest advocates argue that net neutrality is crucial for maintaining the internet as an open platform for innovation, economic growth, and free speech. Without net neutrality, big ISPs like AT&T and Verizon could slow down or even block rival services, not to mention the next generation of innovative startups that depend on internet freedom.
"The FCC's love affair with a few large ISPs is going to be a heartbreaker for consumers, small businesses and streaming services," Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS, a pro-competition technology trade group, said in a statement. "Today's vote continues pushing the internet down a dangerous path, one that threatens both freedom of expression and free markets."
The broadband industry opposes the FCC's net neutrality policy because it treats them as "common carriers" under Title II of the Communications Act, a strict regulatory classification that subjects the industry to strong FCC oversight. Pai has argued that the FCC's policy has caused a decrease in broadband capital investment, but public interest groups strongly dispute that claim.
The FCC order advanced Thursday would reverse the Title II classification, effectively destroying the legal basis for the agency's net neutrality policy. Not surprisingly, the broadband industry praised Thursday's development.
"Today's action appropriately begins the agency's efforts to restore a modern regulatory framework that will promote internet freedom and ensure that the internet continues to grow, thrive and remain accessible to every American," Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who is now the top lobbyist for cable industry trade group NCTA, said in a statement.
FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the sole Democrat at the agency, lamented Thursday's vote as just the latest example of Pai and his Republican FCC colleague Mike O'Rielly putting the interests of the broadband industry ahead of the interests of the American people.
Last month, the FCC voted to allow ISPs to jack up broadband rates for schools and libraries. Earlier this year, the agency moved to undermine a key federal program aimed at helping low-income people afford broadband access, and killed an initiative that would have saved consumers billions of dollars annually by introducing more competition in the cable "set-top box" market.
"Each action is a cut against the public interest, and the majority will keep it coming, unless Americans stand up, make their voices heard and challenge the FCC in court," Clyburn said during Thursday's meeting. "Because it is glaringly obvious, with each open meeting, that the willingness and the ability of the majority to protect consumers and competition in a broadband era has come to a screeching halt."
Kurt Walters, campaign director at progressive advocacy group Demand Progress, warned that there will be consequences for politicians who support the FCC's net neutrality rollback. "Anyone in Congress, the FCC, or the White House failing to unequivocally oppose this plan to kill net neutrality will be grabbing the new third rail of US politics with both hands," Walters said in a statement. "Demand Progress activists and our coalition will mobilize to ensure they are held accountable."