Net neutrality: Moving into the fast lane?

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to repeal the Obama-era net neutrality rules in a 3-2 vote across party lines.

The FCC, led by its Donald Trump-elected chairman Ajit Pai, voted on 14 December to revoke the rules that were created to “safeguard a free and open internet”. These rules barred internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or throttling lawful traffic or creating fast lanes to prioritise paid-for content.

“What is responsible for the phenom-enal development of the internet? It certainly wasn’t heavy-handed govern-ment regulation. Quite to the contrary,” Pai said in a statement, just weeks after he had published his draft ‘Restoring Internet Freedom’ order.

According to the former Verizon lawyer, it was President Clinton and the Republican Congress’s decision to adopt a “light-touch” approach to the internet, which resulted in its progress, one that was “unfettered by Federal or State regulation”. During 1996-2015, he said, a staggering $1.5 trillion was invested into the internet. 

But in 2015, Pai says the government got it wrong, as the Obama administ-ration “jettisoned this successful, bipartisan approach to the internet” subjecting the internet to “utility-style regulation designed in the 1930s to govern Ma Bell”. As a result, “investment in high-speed networks has declined by billions of dollars”, he said. On 26 February 2015, the FCC ruled in favour of net neutrality by reclassifying broad-band access as a telecommunications service and applying Title II (common carrier) of the Communications Act from 1934 as well as section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to ISPs.

Charter Communications, which has openly backed the repeal of net neutrality in the past, said in a statement: “Our objection to Title II has never been about not wanting to provide our customers with an open internet ... We have been concerned about its overly broad and vague prohibitions as well as the potential for rate regulation. By bringing its approach into the 21st century, the FCC is helping provide regulatory predictability so companies like Charter can be confident in making even greater investments in our broadband networks.” 

Open internet 

Pai has stated that as a result of the vote, the FCC “will once again be able to police ISPs, protect consumers, and promote competition, just as it did before 2015”. AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have unsurprisingly issued statements of support. Comcast has a dedicated page on its website reaffirming its commitment to an open internet, stressing “we do not block, slow down or discriminate against lawful content”, adding that transparency and customer protection is key.

“Verizon fully supports the open internet, and we will continue to do so. Our customers demand it and our business depends on it,” said Will Johnson, senior vice president of regulatory affairs at Verizon.

The biggest concern over the legislation is that a roll-back, which presently stops providers from blocking legal content, throttling lawful traffic or prioritising paid-for content, could have a chilling effect on OTT diversity and could clear the way for ISPs to start charging users. 

Companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Netflix have argued that telecom companies may start prioritising their own streaming video services or interfering with messaging apps like Skype or WhatsApp.

The backlash to the FCC’s vote has been dramatic. Netflix was one of the first companies to condemn the decision in a Twitter post: “We’re disappointed in the decision to gut #NetNeutrality protections that ushered in an unprecedented era of innovation, creativity & civic engagement. This is the beginning of a longer legal battle. Netflix stands w/ innovators, large & small, to oppose this misguided FCC order.”

Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg took to her personal profile on the platform to express her disapproval: “Today’s decision from the Federal Communications Commission to end net neutrality is disappointing and harmful. An open internet is critical for new ideas and economic opportunity – and internet providers shouldn’t be able to decide what people can see online or charge more for certain websites. We’re ready to work with members of Congress and others to help make the internet free and open for everyone.”

But it’s not just these companies that are threatening legal action. Pai’s plan also blocks state and local governments from imposing their own net neutrality rules and many states in the US are choosing to fight back.

Within minutes of the decision, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman declared that he would be leading a multi-state lawsuit against the FCC: “We will be filing a claim to preserve protections for New Yorkers and all Americans. And we’ll be working aggressively to stop the FCC’s leadership from doing any further damage to the internet and to our economy.” 

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