Today the Federal Communications Commission officially repealed net neutrality rules which were first introduced by the Obama Administration in 2015.
This policy change would change the way the internet is regulated, and how federal agencies monitor practices of major broadband firms.
Net Neutrality in a Nutshell
Net Neutrality provides regulations that prohibit internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking, throttling, or creating paywalls for customers to access certain content or use content providers.
Countries like Portugal and New Zealand have repealed net neutrality, and in their cases, ISP’s are able to charge premiums for users who for example use video streaming, play video games online, or use other types of content delivery services. These countries allow users to add extra gigabytes of usage bundled by app and content types so it is a bandwidth based policy, and not based off of specific sites or services visited.
However the issue is an affront to proponents of the internet as a free medium to exchange information in under the fear that ISP’s could either throttle access or charge customers extra for using services that compete with theirs, or for visiting certain websites that disagree with their views, and overall restrict both access and the cost of internet services.
Repealing net neutrality has garnered monumental opposition from Congress, Technical experts, advocacy organizations, and a slew of social media campaigns asking for representatives to keep the provisions in place.
While the spectrum of how policies would be implemented is not clear, since it is on an honor system we could see anything from a less restrictive policy like Portugal and New Zealand, or something more restrictive that hurts consumers, like this meme below which shows the other end of the extreme.
In November the video game company Electronic Arts received a massive backlash after their popular Star Wars Battlefront II game was released with microtransactions that required players to spend money on Loot Boxes to get gear, and that could be used to advance themselves in the game without playing it.
After outcry from players, and legal battles about whether microtransactions are considered to be gambling, EA removed them from the game.
Some argue that ending Net Neutrality would be similar to adding microtransactions to the internet as a whole, but paying fees to addon services, use certain websites, or receive other benefits.
Controversy with FCC Chairman
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has also received a large amount of flak due to his previous role at Verizon. Pai joined the FCC in 2007 and became a commissioner in 2012.
In video comedy sketch for the Federal Communications Bar Association, a group where he used to be a member as an in-house attorney for Verison, he joked with Verizon Executive Kathleen Grillo, making a joke that almost seemed too eerie to be satire.
As you know,” Grillo says, “the FCC is captured by industry, but we think it is not captured enough…. We want to brainwash and groom a Verizon puppet to install as FCC chairman. Think ‘Manchurian Candidate.’”
“Awesome,” says Pai.
“So you’ll do it?”
Pai also issued another video using memes to stir up the support for the anti-net neutrality move. In the video Pai swings around fidget spinners and lightsabers, and dressed in a Santa costume.
Ajit Pai is also famous for drinking from oversized coffee mugs, something that became the butt of a sketch on John Oliver’s show earlier this year.
Wednesday’s FCC Vote
Despite all this opposition, the FCC voted to eliminate the 2015 Open Internet Order and the protections the act put in place with a 3 to 2 decision.
The New Order, known as “Restoring Internet Freedom” removes the FCC as a regulator of the broadband industry and relegates rules that had previously prevented blocking and throttling content to an honor system where while firms are not explicitly prohibited from implementing such rules, they are permitted to.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) now has the role of managing industry policies, but since they govern a much broader agency and set of industries, they would not be able to implement pre-emptive policies such as what the FCC has previously implemented.
the FCC Vote was split 3 to 2, with Chairman Ajit Pai, and Republican Commissioners Brendan Carr, and Michael O’Rielly voting in favor, and Democratic Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, and Jessica Rosenworcel voting against the order.
According to the dissenting opinion,
“I dissent from this fiercely spun, legally lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling Destroying Internet Freedom Order,” said Commissioner Clyburn. “There is a basic fallacy underlying the majority’s actions and rhetoric today: the assumption of what is best for broadband providers is best for America. What saddens me is that the agency that is supposed to protect you is abandoning you. But what I am pleased to be able to say is the fight to save net neutrality does not end today. This agency does not have the final word. Thank goodness.”
Faulty Impetus Behind the New Order
According to Chairman Pai quite ironically, the internet “should be driven by engineers and not lawyers and accountants” however the new decision puts this up in smoke.
However, according to technical experts at Techcrunch, the definitions that the FCC used were not technically sound, and are wrong in their definition of how the internet works.
Broadband has to be defined as either an information service or telecommunications service. The first is “the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information,” while the second is “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received. It’s important because the two things are regulated very differently — the FCC has much greater power over telecommunications services, under the “Title II” authority that internet service providers are so afraid of.
The rules must be entered into the federal register, a process that begins early next year so they will not immediately go into effect.
There is a Congressional Process called the Congressional Review Act (CRA) where Congress could issue a resolution of disapproval and overrule the FCC’s decision. This is not an easy process as it only has a 60-day window to act and needs either presidential backing or 2/3 support from the House and the Senate. CRA has been used to overturn several Obama-era Regulations but it will require convincing Republicans in Congress to voice their support, as currently 107 of the 239 House Republicans are in favor of ending net neutrality.
According to the advocacy group Fight for the Future,
“Net neutrality has more public support now than it ever has before. Internet users are educated, outraged, and strategic, and they know that Congress has the power to overturn the FCC vote,” Fight for the Future said in a statement. “Lawmakers cannot hide from their constituents on this issue.”
As of this afternoon, Rep. Doyle has announced that he plans to introduce a resolution of disapproval that would overturn today’s FCC decision with the support of 10 other Democratic representatives.
“I’ve tried repeatedly to convince Chairman Pai to abandon his plans to dismantle the Open Internet Order—most recently by organizing a letter from 118 Members of Congress urging him not to take this vote today—and now that the FCC has voted to kill Net Neutrality and give ISPs a green light to control access to the Internet, I will introduce legislation under the Congressional Review Act to overturn today’s order and restore Net Neutrality,”
In addition to Congressional action, we as citizens can contact our elected officials to garner public support against the policy before it goes through the executive channels.
Openness of exchange of information is critical to an open democracy and protecting our first amendment rights, and to keep the market open from oligopoly.
Luckily today’s vote is not the end.