FCC Chief Opens Door to ‘Fast Lanes’ in Rollback of Web Rules

  • FCC releases proposal to roll back net neutrality rule
  • Agency cites ‘supplemental revenue’ for broadband companies

U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai raised the prospect of undoing major parts of net neutrality rules backed by Silicon Valley, calling for the agency to consider lifting bans on blocking web traffic or building “fast lanes” that favor those willing to pay more for faster service.

The Republican’s proposal released Thursday asks for comment by Aug. 16 on whether the agency should relinquish utility-style regulation of broadband providers, undermining a rule written in 2015 by Democrats. Under Pai’s proposal, the FCC would end the designation of broadband companies such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. as common carriers, removing the legal authority that underpins the net neutrality rules.

He asked for a vote at the FCC’s May 18 meeting on a proposal that would begin months of debate as the agency decides how to dismantle the rules. Republicans oppose the Obama-era regulation, saying it discourages investment and hamstrings broadband companies. Democrats say the rules are needed to prevent unfair treatment of web traffic by companies that control access into homes and smartphones.

Pai in his proposal said he was moving toward light regulation and away from a “massive and unprecedented shift in favor of government control of the internet.”

Democrats said he was giving “a gift to behemoth incumbent broadband providers.”

‘Charge Tolls’

“This proposal is net neutrality in name only,” Mignon Clyburn, the sole Democrat on the FCC, said in a joint statement with Federal Trade Commission Democrat Terrell McSweeny. “It would allow broadband providers to erect barriers or charge tolls” and “favor their own content over others, and pick winners and losers on the internet.”

One of the practices Pai proposes to review is the ban on “paid prioritization” or “fast lanes,” through which broadband companies could charge higher rates to web users for speedier service. The practice was banned even though "no such rule was needed since several large internet service providers made it clear that that they did not engage in paid prioritization and had no plans to do so,” according to the proposal.

Pai’s proposal suggests that there may be reasons to allow paid prioritization, such as giving broadband companies a “supplemental revenue stream” that would allow them to offer lower-priced access to other users.

Another cornerstone of the net neutrality rules is a ban against impairing or degrading web traffic, known as throttling. Pai’s proposal asks whether that rule is still necessary, and asks when throttling is harmful to consumers.

Blocking, Throttling

“My golly, that’s just ridiculous,” said Michael Copps, a former Democratic FCC commissioner who has long backed strong net neutrality rules. "Net neutrality is those bright line rules -- no blocking, no throttling, etc."

Pai, a Republican appointed chairman by President Donald Trump, also recommends restoring the Federal Trade Commission’s power to police privacy practices of broadband providers. Congress earlier this year killed an FCC internet privacy rule that was an outgrowth of the net neutrality regulation, leaving neither regulator overseeing privacy.

Prior story: FCC Chief Sparks Clash With Call to Repeal Net Neutrality

In the absence of wider net neutrality rules from the FCC, the trade commission could decide to police broadband practices through its power to act against unfair or deceptive practices. Copps said that alternative is “wholly inadequate” since the FTC doesn’t write rules that companies must follow and only acts after unfair practices occur.

Acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen, a Republican, in a January article said antitrust law, which the FTC wields, “is up to the job” of preventing harmful behavior.

McSweeny, the Democratic member of the trade commission, in an April 17 speech said consumers might not be able to detect violations, and enforcement could take years as the FTC develops a case.

The net neutrality rule is working and doesn’t need to be changed, say supporters including the Internet Association, a group with members including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, EBay Inc., and Microsoft Corp.

On Wednesday, Comcast Senior Executive Vice President David Cohen said the company supports Pai’s proposal to undo the common carrier designation, and “will continue to support strong, legally enforceable net neutrality protections.”

AT&T Senior Vice President of Federal Regulatory Joan Marsh in a Thursday blog post criticized the “the outdated and ill-fitting framework” of the FCC’s 2015 order and said Congress should set rules.

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