Enlarge / FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaks during the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas on April 25, 2017. (credit: Getty Images | Ethan Miller )
The Federal Communications Commission will vote next month to start the process of reversing the commission’s 2015 net neutrality order, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced in a speech today.
Earlier today, Pai shared with his fellow commissioners a plan to “reverse the mistake of Title II and return to the light-touch regulatory framework that served our nation so well during the Clinton administration, Bush administration, and the first six years of the Obama administration,” he said.
Pai’s net neutrality rollback targets the FCC’s February 2015 reclassification of fixed and mobile Internet providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act.
Title II provides the regulatory authority the FCC used to prohibit ISPs from blocking or throttling traffic, and from giving priority to Web services in exchange for payment.
The FCC used Title II to impose the net neutrality rules after a previous court decision struck down rules issued without the step of reclassifying ISPs as common carriers.
Pai said he will seek public comment about the blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization rules, but the act of eliminating the Title II classification of ISPs would also eliminate those rules.
The FCC vote scheduled for May 18 is on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking [NPRM], which seeks comment on Pai’s plan and could lead to a final vote later this year. Pai acknowledged that some net neutrality opponents “have called on the FCC to reverse Title II immediately through a declaratory ruling.”
But Pai argued that an NPRM is the appropriate next step. “This decision should be made through an open, transparent process through which every American can share his or her views,” he said.
Pai said he will release the full text of the NPRM tomorrow.
Pai did not mention any “voluntary” net neutrality commitments today, even though media reports earlier this month suggested that he wants ISPs to make voluntary net neutrality pledges that could be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. We described in a previous story how voluntary net neutrality commitments would be far less strict than the current rules.
Pai also addressed the future of broadband privacy rules today. The FCC’s previous Democratic leadership used Title II authority to write strict privacy rules for ISPs, which were already undone by Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump.
Pai today said that “Repealing Title II will simply restore the FTC’s authority to police broadband providers’ privacy practices.” But that isn’t necessary true.
The FTC is prohibited from regulating common carriers, but removing the common carrier designation from broadband won’t necessarily give the FTC all the authority it needs.
A court ruling last year let AT&T escape FTC oversight entirely because it’s still a common carrier for phone service.
Action by Congress might be necessary to let the FTC regulate the Internet businesses of mobile and landline phone companies. Pai did not mention this complication.
Pai’s speech was hosted by FreedomWorks, a group that Motherboard describes as being “perhaps best known for helping to launch the conservative Tea Party movement. (And also for producing a video depicting Hillary Clinton having sex with a giant panda.
Seriously.)” FreedomWorks called last year’s court decision upholding the FCC’s net neutrality rules “a blow to Internet freedom.”
The impact of Title II
Under former Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, the FCC’s Title II decision had numerous other effects, Title II was used to require greater disclosures about hidden fees and data caps, but Pai’s new Republican majority already exempted ISPs with 250,000 or fewer subscribers from these rules.
The FCC was also trying to stop AT&T and Verizon Wireless programs that exempted their own video services from mobile data caps while charging other video providers for the same data cap exemptions, until Pai ended the investigation.
Title II was also crucial in ending disputes over interconnection payments in which network operators or content providers pay ISPs for direct connections to consumer broadband networks.
Before the Title II reclassification, interconnection disputes were harming the quality of video streaming and other Internet services, but those disputes were quickly resolved once the rules were in place.
More generally, Title II allows either ISPs’ customers or their competitors to file complaints about “unjust” or “unreasonable” conduct.
All of that will go away once ISPs are no longer classified as common carriers.
Web companies and Democrats cry foul
Pai’s announcement had been highly anticipated since details of his net neutrality rollback plan were leaked. Net neutrality advocates and Democratic lawmakers laid the groundwork for their opposition to eliminating the current net neutrality rules in the hours leading up to Pai’s announcement today. Here are some examples:
More than 800 startups, investors, and other people and organizations sent a letter to Pai saying that “Without net neutrality, the incumbents who provide access to the Internet would be able to pick winners or losers in the market. They could impede traffic from our services in order to favor their own services or established competitors. Or they could impose new tolls on us, inhibiting consumer choice.”
The Internet Association, a trade group whose members include Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, and other Web companies, countered arguments that net neutrality rules have inhibited network investment.
The group pointed to statements this year by ISPs, such as AT&T expanding fiber deployment and calling fiber a “growth opportunity,” Comcast saying that it doubles its network capacity every 18 to 24 months, and Verizon announcing a new $1 billion investment in fiber.
Before net neutrality rules were implemented, all three of these companies previously claimed the rules would stifle investment, the Internet Association pointed out.
Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) held a press conference with activists to discuss support for the current rules and their opposition to attempts to dismantle them.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other like-minded groups wrote to lawmakers asking for Congressional oversight hearings before any plan to change net neutrality rules is implemented.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the commission’s only Democrat, will be at a press conference this afternoon to discuss her support of preserving the current net neutrality rules.
This story is developing and we will be updating it.
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