The remaining 50 days of the year 2017 are going to be busy for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and that’s not good news for US Internet users.
Starting with the FCC’s open meeting today (November 16), the agency is poised to approve or propose a string of decisions that, among many other things, will remove the net neutrality protections and possibly even ban states from enacting Internet privacy regulations.
The FCC, led by Trump-appointed Chairman Ajit Pai, is preparing a final order that will spell out how exactly it intends to roll back the 2015 net neutrality order, which requires broadband providers such as Comcast and Verizon to treat all Internet traffic equally.
Pai, a vocal critic of the net neutrality rules, has not yet unveiled a draft of the proposed new order. However, Reuters reports that he is preparing to schedule a vote in December to nullify the principles that have been enacted to prevent providers from blocking or delivering traffic from various sources at different speeds.
The December vote was disclosed by two people who asked to remain anonymous because the FCC hasn’t announced the matter publicly yet. One of the people said Pai might call for repealing the rules except for segments that require internet service providers to inform customers about their practices. Such severe rollback would definitely please broadband providers.
Pai could also prefer to declare that the FCC has no authority to promote broadband. That would leave the net neutrality order without an apparent legal foundation, which would then likely lead to an interpretation that the agency lacks authority to issue even revised, less strict rules.
In fact, back in May Pai invited the public comment on whether the FCC has the authority or should keep any regulations to restrict Internet providers’ ability to throttle, block or offer “fast lanes” to some websites or services, known as “paid prioritization.”
The report of the December vote quickly drew reactions. Various rights groups warn that if Pai’s plans come to pass, ISPs could tip the scales in favor of some websites over others, harming consumers and small businesses in the process.
Among the frontmen of the net neutrality supporters is Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web almost 30 years ago. Writing in USA Today, Berners-Lee said: “Treating all content equally online is key to individual empowerment, democracy and economic growth. But the FCC is threatening to take that away.”
“It’s time to raise hell,” Free Press CEO Craig Aaron stated. “Pai’s willingness to trot out alternative facts about broadband-industry investment and the supposed harms caused by these vital rules should worry anyone who cares about the free and open Internet.”
However, critics of net neutrality say the rules hinder investment and expose companies to a possibility of stricter regulation, including pricing mandates. They also believe that marketplace competition will discipline broadband providers.
Trump’s White House has opposed the rules. Despite the political pressure, though, many expect a court challenge to any commission effort to gut the regulations.
Major telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T have been lobbying the FCC this month on what they’d like to see included in the final order. Among other things, they want the FCC to preempt state laws on privacy and net neutrality, as reiterated by the mobile industry lobby group CTIA in a recent meeting and filing.
Since the federal Internet privacy rules were undone by Congress and President Donald Trump early this year, dozens of states have taken action to counter the move by passing online privacy regulations at the state level. However, states imposing their own consumer protection laws would somehow “undercut” broadband deployment and harm consumers, CTIA claimed.
Nevertheless, preventing state laws might require another notice-and-comment period, which would rule out any final decisions being made this year.
The Internet is the essential resource of our times, and it should be subject to measures aimed to protect the greater good. However, the current FCC has repeatedly demonstrated its intent to overhaul any existing rules for the benefit of major telecom corporations at the expense of Americans.