As expected, the FCC today voted along party lines to overturn the commission's 2015 net neutrality rules.
After a brief recess that required meeting attendees to evacuate for security reasons, a divided commission voted 3 to 2 to get rid of rules that allowed the FCC to step in if an ISP was accused of shady practices on the web, like paid prioritization and discriminating against specific internet applications.
Continue Reading Below
The rules, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, solved a problem that did not exist. "The internet wasn't broken in 2015," he said at today's open meeting. "The internet…is perhaps the only thing in American society that we can all agree has been a stunning success."
Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly characterized the opposition to today's vote as "scary bedtime stories for children of telecom geeks," not reality. "This decision will not break the internet," he said.
His fellow Republican Commissioner, Brendan Carr, echoed those sentiments. "The FCC is not killing the internet," Carr said.
As a refresher, net neutrality is the concept that everyone should have equal access to the web. Amazon should not be able to pay to have its website load faster than Newegg, Best Buy, or a mom-and-pop e-commerce site, for example. After Comcast was accused of blocking P2P sites, however, the FCC decided to craft rules that would ban ISPs from discriminating based on content. It was okay to slow down your entire network during peak times, for example, but you couldn't block a particular site, like BitTorrent.
Today's vote reverses a 2015 decision to reclassify broadband as a telecom service rather than an information service, or "Title II" in D.C. speak for its placement in the Communications Act. It's a wonky, in-the-weeds concept, but reclassifying gave the FCC more legal standing to regulate broadband providers after previous net neutrality rules were struck down by the courts. Thus far, that strategy has worked, but the Republicans now at the helm of the FCC are not fans of applying Title II to the internet.
Commissioner O'Rielly, for example, said today that the FCC was "railroaded" into adopting Title II after President Obama voiced his support for the move in November 2014.
Chairman Pai also said Title II was adopted "under political pressure" and "on express orders from the previous White House."
ISPs, meanwhile, say they agree on the concept of net neutrality (AT&T event cheekily joined July's day of action to preserve net neutrality); they just don't think it should be regulated. But given that this whole debate started with an ISP behaving badly—at a time before the explosion of data and the binge-watch era—detractors are not ready to trust Comcast, Verizon, Spectrum, and other large ISPs.
According to Pai, though, the main complaint people have about their internet service is "not that their [ISP] is blocking access to content, it's that they don't have access [to the web] at all or not enough competition." The FCC's open internet rules have "taken us in the opposite direction" there, Pai said, pointing to small ISPs he said have resisted buildouts or other investment for fear of facing a regulatory hammer. Supporters of the FCC rules, however, don't necessarily believe that.
Democrats Not Amused
Pai's Democratic colleagues had strong words for their fellow commissioners.
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she was "outraged" by today's vote, and accused the FCC of "abdicating responsibility to protect the nation's broadband consumers."
Clyburn argued that today's move likely won't change the internet overnight. "But what we have wrought will one day be apparent and by then, when you really see what has changed, I fear, it may not only be too late to do anything about it, because there will be no agency empowered to address your concerns."
The commissioner expressed particular concern for communities of color that rely on internet platforms to communicate. "It was through social media that the world first heard about Ferguson, Missouri, because legacy news outlets did not consider it important until the hashtag started trending," Clyburn said.
In the future, a broadband provider might allow its network to slow down a high-traffic video service and then request payment "to make the pain stop," Clyburn suggested. Perhaps bandwidth for Internet of Things devices will cost more than internet access on a smartphone or tablet.
"What's next? Blocking or throttling? That will never happen? After today's vote, exactly who is the cop on the beat that can or will stop them?" Clyburn asked.
Chairman Pai pointed to the Federal Trade Commission as that cop. The FCC and FTC this week announced that the FTC would handle broadband-related complaints going forward. But the FTC has "no technical expertise in telecommunications," according to Clyburn, and even "if you can even reach that high bar of proving unfair or deceptive practices and that there is substantial consumer injury, it will take years upon years to remedy."
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel concurred. She called the move a "rash decision" pulled off via a "corrupt process."
"This puts the FCC on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public," Rosenworcel said.
ISPs say "just trust us," but they have the technical ability and business incentive to do whatever they want, and today's vote gives them the "legal green light to go ahead and do so." If that happens, "you have no recourse; you have nowhere to go," Rosenworcel said, echoing Clyburn's concerns about the FTC not having enough expertise to handle telecom-related complaints.
Calls for Delay Denied
"This is a matter of enormous importance with significant implications for our entire economy and therefore merits the most thorough, deliberate, and thoughtful process that can be provided," Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King of Maine wrote in a letter to Chairman Pai.
Republican Collins and Independent King argued that Pai's proposal "fails to ensure that the open internet will continue to benefit and drive innovation in our economy. The FTC's definition of anti-competitive conduct would likely allow most violations of current net neutrality protections, including allowing ISPs to charge websites and services for access and fast lanes to customers, promote certain content over others, and to otherwise engage in discriminatory practices."
The duo had requested that the FCC give Congress the chance to hold public hearings in 2018. In the House, Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado did the same, while Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska "urged Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to preserve the framework of net neutrality."
Senate Democrats also published an open letter on TechCrunch, arguing among other things that without the FCC's net neutrality rules, "your internet service provider could control where you can go online, rather than giving you full access to the internet."
But absent any action from Congress—like a bill that would enshrine the FCC's net neutrality rules—it's unlikely today's vote would have gone any other way. The FCC went through its regular rulemaking process, including a public comment period. And despite the controversy surrounding those public comments, the order approved today is largely identical to the one Pai first proposed in April.
Commissioner O'Rielly said as much today. "We do not rely on [public] comments," he said, though he stressed that that does not mean the FCC ignores them. "Many were simply obscenity-laced tirades."
He also shrugged off calls for public hearings, calling them inefficient. "Any member of the public could've [voiced concern] through the standard process," he argued.
As he did last month, meanwhile, Pai today took aim at internet services like Twitter, arguing that it was not fair to regulate ISPs but not these so-called edge providers. "Edge providers decide what you see and…what you don't," Pai said, pointing to things like paid tweets, which "are just paid prioritization."
That argument, however, ignores that if people don't like something about Twitter, they can just drop it and move on to any number of other social networks. When it comes to ISPs, though, many communities often have only one, maybe two, options for high-speed internet service.