Divided U.S. FCC Votes to Begin Net Neutrality Rule Rollbackby
Commission votes 2-1 to start dismantling Obama-era web rules
Vote beings months-long process leading to final vote
Regulators began dismantling Obama-era net neutrality rules with a vote on Thursday, opening the way to fewer restrictions on broadband providers and raising web companies’ fears they’ll face barriers to reaching customers.
The Federal Communications Commission in a 2-1 Republican-led vote gave preliminary approval to Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to replace rules passed in 2015 by Democrats. Pai wants to remove strong legal authority that critics say over-regulates telephone and cable providers, and that defenders say is needed to enforce fair treatment of web traffic.
The action begins months of consideration leading to a second, conclusive vote.
“Today, we propose to repeal utility-style regulation of the internet,” said Pai, a Republican appointed by President Donald Trump.
Mignon Clyburn, the agency’s sole Democrat, offered what she called a vociferous dissent, calling the proposal “a political rush job.” The action “jeopardizes the ability of the open internet to function,” Clyburn said.
“Will any of the open internet rules survive this rulemaking? I am doubtful,” Clyburn said.
The embattled net neutrality rules bar internet service providers such as AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. from blocking or slowing some web traffic in favor of other content -- their own or a paying customer’s. The prospect of changing the rules produced a public outpouring, with the FCC registering more than 1.6 million emailed comments -- many after TV comedian John Oliver urged viewers to act.
Republicans say the Obama-era regulation discourages investment and hamstrings broadband companies. The rules were passed at the urging of President Barack Obama, and Democrats say they’re needed to prevent unfair treatment of web traffic by companies that control access to homes and smartphones.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, applauded the action. “We finally have an FCC chairman who recognizes that we live in a new era — an era of smartphones and laptops and other mobile devices — a chairman who believes that innovation, ingenuity, growth, and job creation aren’t dirty words to be stifled with unnecessary red tape,” McConnell said in an emailed statement.
“Today, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai began the wrecking process to overturn net neutrality, demonstrating that he is on the wrong side of history, consumers and the public interest,” said Representative Anna Eshoo, of California, a Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee that oversees the FCC. “The FCC begins the process to remove rules that advance competition, innovation, small businesses and entrepreneurs.”
NCTA-The Internet and Television Association, a trade group with Comcast among its members, in a said in a statement the vote “appropriately begins the agency’s efforts to restore a modern regulatory framework that will promote internet freedom.”
USTelecom, a trade group for broadband providers including AT&T and Verizon, said in a news release the vote moved policy FCC was moving toward “a modern, constructive policy framework.”
“This rulemaking wisely focuses this debate and puts a pro-consumer, pro-innovation and pro-investment policy trifecta within our reach,” Jonathan Spalter, USTelecom’s chief executive officer, said in an emailed statement.
Some consumer advocates objected.
“This proposal should be chilling to everyone who values the internet as a platform for free speech, commerce, entrepreneurship, and citizen engagement,” said Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union.
The Internet Association, with members including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc. and Netflix Inc., said it opposed to Pai’s changes. Broadband providers “should not be able to use their position as gatekeepers to prioritize their own content over others,” Michael Beckerman, president of the group, said in an emailed statement.
Pai said in his proposal last month that he was moving toward light regulation and away from a “massive and unprecedented shift in favor of government control of the internet.”
Under Pai’s proposal the agency will consider lifting bans on blocking web traffic, and against building “fast lanes” that favor those willing to pay more for faster service. The agency also will consider whether to keep a ban against impairing or degrading web traffic, known as throttling.
The rules changes are likely to pass the FCC, where Pai leads a 2-1 Republican majority. It probably will be challenged in federal court, just as the 2015 rules were. They were upheld last year by a three-judge panel.
NCTA, with members including largest U.S. cable provider Comcast and No. 2 Charter Communications Inc., said in a blog post before the vote that “no matter what happens with this new FCC proceeding or whatever regulatory model comes next, we will continue to provide an open internet experience for our customers.”