President Trump's Federal Communications Commission chief, former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, is moving swiftly to dismantle Obama-era rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be treated equally.
Now, with one less than one week to go before an initial FCC vote on Pai's proposal—which would allow broadband giants like AT&T and Verizon to favor their own online services or discriminate against rivals—top Democratic lawmakers are urging Pai to slow down the process in order to allow more time for the American people to weigh in on the matter.
In a letter to the FCC delivered on Thursday, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania—both senior Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee—urged Pai to extend the deadline for public comments on the net neutrality rollback by at least one month.
"The issue is critically important for the millions of Americans who do not normally participate in FCC proceedings and who cannot afford Washington lawyers to file comments on their behalf," Pallone and Doyle wrote. "We should all agree that their opinions should count nonetheless."
In a Twitter message posted late Thursday, FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the agency's sole Democrat, backed the lawmakers' request, but Clyburn's support may fall on deaf ears, because Pai controls the agency's agenda. A FCC spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.
In their letter, Pallone and Doyle cited serious technical issues with the FCC's public comment filing system, after the agency's website crashed following a deluge of traffic, the origin of which is still unclear.
The problems started last Sunday night when HBO comedian John Oliver urged his viewers to flood the FCC's website with comments opposing Pai's plan, almost immediately rendering the agency's website inaccessible. Shortly thereafter, the FCC claimed that it had been the victim of "multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDos)" designed to make it "difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC."
"It's absolutely crucial that there is enough time for the agency to receive feedback from the public."
"It's absolutely crucial that there is enough time for the agency to receive feedback from the public on this issue that has profound implications for the future of freedom of expression," Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit digital rights group, told Motherboard.
In addition to the FCC's recent technical difficulties, Pallone and Doyle cited the fact that the deadline for final comments on Pai's proposal is currently set for the middle of August, when "many small business owners, students, internet users, and workers are away."
The lawmakers pointed out during the FCC's 2014 open internet process, which led to the strong net neutrality rules that are currently under threat, the agency extended the deadline for final comments until mid-September. That timeline "not only gave Americans time to more fully consider their responses, it also allowed the public to return to school, to home, and to work from their August travel," Pallone and Doyle wrote.
"We believe the Commission should provide the public the same courtesy when re-considering the existing protections," the lawmakers added.
The FCC is a notoriously opaque agency with a policymaking process than can be very confusing, so it's worth taking a moment to clearly lay out Pai's current plan and schedule for dismantling the net neutrality rules.
Next week, on May 18, the FCC will vote on a "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" (NPRM) which, if ultimately approved, will roll back the legal foundation for the FCC's net neutrality rules. As chairman, Pai currently controls the FCC, so next week's vote is likely to advance his proposal. After that, the public will have until July 17 to comment on the NPRM.
At that point, there will be a 30 day period for "reply comments," with a deadline set for August 16—unless Pallone and Doyle can convince the agency to extend the commenting process. After that, a final FCC decision on Pai's net neutrality rollback plan may not happen until much later in the year. So this is going to be a lengthy fight.
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