WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission repealed its Obama-era net neutrality rules on Thursday, a step critics warn will upend the internet by allowing cable companies to control where their customers can go online.
The vote capped months of debate pitting internet service providers and Republicans against tech companies and Democrats — along with a controversy over millions of fake public comments that flooded the FCC’s website.
The FCC’s order, from Republican Chairman Ajit Pai, eliminates rules that require companies like Comcast and AT&T to treat all web traffic equally as it passes through their networks. In its place, the agency says internet providers will be allowed to block or slow some web traffic or negotiate paid deals with websites for so-called fast lanes to consumers — in exchange for disclosing those practices to the public. Another agency, the FTC, will have the power to act if those practices are deemed anti-competitive or harmful to consumers, the FCC’s Republicans say.
The rollback is a victory for the telecom industry and a milestone achievement for Pai, a longtime FCC commissioner and former Verizon lawyer who was elevated by President Donald Trump to the agency’s top spot in January. Pai’s focus in his first year as chairman has been on revoking regulations adopted by his Democratic predecessors. His biggest target has been the 2015 net neutrality rules, a signature policy accomplishment of the Obama administration.
Pai argues that the FCC, in applying utility-style regulation to internet providers, was too heavy-handed and led to the government “micromanaging the internet.” He says the rules have deterred investment in broadband networks, an argument that supporters of the current rules reject. Both sides have offered warring economic studies on the rules’ impact since the 2015 rules took effect.
“The government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers in the Internet economy,” Pai said Thursday. “We should have a level playing field and let consumers decide who prevails.”
The leaders of the major cable and wireless industry groups sayconsumers won’t see a difference in their online experience because internet service providers are committed to net neutrality principles even if they’re not mandated.
But critics of Pai’s approach say the net neutrality protections are vital for consumers, particularly for those who don’t have options when it comes to their internet service provider. They say the rules allow online companies to thrive without fear of telecom giants interfering with their ability to reach customers.
“When the current protections are abandoned, and the rules that have been officially in place since 2015 are repealed, we will have a Cheshire cat version of net neutrality,” Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who voted against the repeal, said at the meeting. “We will be in a world where regulatory substance fades to black, and all that is left is a broadband provider’s toothy grin … and those oh so comforting words: we have every incentive, don’t worry, we have every incentive to do the right thing. What they will soon have, is every incentive to do their own thing.”
The debate over the internet regulations has been a long and bitter one. Protracted fights over what sort of net neutrality regulations — if any — the FCC can impose have gone to court, sparking lengthy legal battles. At the root of the debate is how to apply pre-digital-era laws to an age of internet communications.
The FCC took a brief and abrupt break today as it talked about net neutrality for a bomb threat that was called in.
Pai’s proposal to repeal the rules sparked more than 21 million comments during the window for public input, and the tally has now surpassed 23 million. The comments, fueled in part by digital activist campaigns and a segment by HBO comedian John Oliver, have become a source of controversy amid revelations that millions of the messages were either fake or bore real people’s names without their consent.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is investigating the issue, created a website giving people a way to check whether their identities were used to generate fake comments. Democrats including FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel have said the commission should postpone its vote in light of the problems with the online comment system.
The chairman’s office has sought to highlight suspicious comments as well, saying, for example, that more than 400,000 filings in support of the rules seem to have originated in Russia. But the FCC rejected a request from Schneiderman to provide details on the comments, citing privacy concerns, and the agency has downplayed the significance of fake messages overall, saying it doesn’t rely on “non-substantive” comments in its proceedings.
Digital activists have turned up the pressure on Pai with a social media campaign in the days leading up to the vote, with Twitter promoting a net neutrality hashtag. The chairman, meanwhile, has aggressively defended his order, arguing that Twitter and other tech firms that control what kind of content people see online are the real danger to internet freedom and blasting celebrities like Alyssa Milano, Mark Ruffalo and Cher who oppose his plan.
The fight is unlikely to end with the FCC’s vote, as both sides are gearing up for a court battle. Advocates of the rules, including advocacy groups Public Knowledge, Free Press and Schneiderman said Thursday they will challenge the repeal in court.