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At a meeting of the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday, officials voted 2 to 1 in favor of a controversial proposal by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to undo net neutrality rules that were put in place back in 2015.
The FCC will now begin a months-long process aimed at unravelling both net neutrality regulations and the agency’s underlying authority to implement them. A final vote on the measure could be scheduled for later this year, following a public feedback period.
At the heart of the issue is a fundamental question: What's the best way to ensure that internet service providers treat all internet traffic equally and fairly?
What the fuss is about
The 2015 net neutrality rules currently prevent internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon from blocking or throttling lawful online traffic. The rules also ban "paid prioritization" deals to create fast internet lanes for companies that can pay for them.
Consumer advocates, internet freedom activists, and industry groups on both sides of the issue have been gearing up for months for the fight over the future of the rules.
Those in favor of net neutrality regulation say it protects consumers from practices that could restrict their choice of online content or force up prices.
“This proposal should be chilling to everyone who values the internet as a platform for free speech, commerce, entrepreneurship, and citizen engagement," says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports. "Preserving the open internet has prompted an unprecedented response from consumers on multiple occasions, with millions voicing their continued support for net neutrality rules. We implore Chairman Pai to listen to the interests of the public the Commission was tasked with protecting.”
Broadband providers say they support at least some aspects of net neutrality, but argue that they are suffering under an unneeded layer of regulation. The Internet and Television Association, which represents cable companies and ISPs, has sided with Pai on the issue.
In a recent statement, the organization said the current regulatory regime "raises costs, which are ultimately born by consumers, and threatens the continued growth and expansion of internet networks throughout America."
What they voted on
The major thing the FCC chairman wants to change is something called Title II classification.
In 2015, the FCC decided to classify broadband service providers as telecommunications services, also called "common carriers," under Title II of the Communications Act. That law was passed in 1934—a detail frequently noted by Pai when he argues against Title II classification—and updated most recently in 1996.
This all sounds arcane, but it matters because without Title II, the FCC doesn’t have the authority to impose net neutrality rules. That’s what federal courts said after ISPs sued to block net neutrality regulations enacted in 2010. The Title II reclassification was put in place under former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler in response to the courts.
Pai says his goal is to return to a "light-touch" regulatory framework that worked well. "Nothing about the Internet was broken in 2015," he said during an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., back in April. In his vision, ISPs would voluntarily commit to important aspects of net neutrality, with some oversight by a different agency, the Federal Trade Commission.
But this worries consumer advocacy organizations such as Consumers Union, Public Knowledge and the ACLU. “The only way to ensure that all content is treated equally is to keep the internet classified as a public utility," says Consumers Union's Schwantes. "Voluntary commitments from broadband providers to adhere to net neutrality ‘principles’ are simply not a substitute—especially when there would be no cop left on the beat with the authority to ensure providers stick to their promises."
The current rules are also supported by much of the tech industry. In an open letter to Pai, the Internet Association, which represents companies including Apple, Google, and Netflix said the "internet industry is uniform in its belief that net neutrality preserves the consumer experience, competition, and innovation online. In other words, existing net neutrality rules should be enforced and kept intact.”
Is the net neutrality debate over?
No—this is just the start of a drawn-out rule-making process.
People on all sides of this issue expected Pai's proposal to pass on Thursday. There are currently three FCC commissioners, two Republicans (including Pai) and a Democrat. The Republicans voted for the rules change and Democrat Mignon Clyburn voted against it.
The vote won’t immediately end either Title II or net neutrality, however. The next step is a public commenting period that will last into late summer.
And yes, ordinary consumers are part of the public, with the right to enter comments.
You can weigh in by joining a Consumers Union petition or by going directly to the FCC website—as many Americans have already done. “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver’s May 7 episode arguing for the current net neutrality rules sent so many people to the FCC's website that it crashed.
At a technology press event hosted this week by the web publisher TechCrunch, Clyburn urged the public to continue speaking out. “Net neutrality is doomed if we’re silent,” she said.
Once the commenting period ends, the FCC staff will compile and review the comments, and then draft a final order for the commissioners to vote on. The process usually takes a few months, but could be expedited.
If the FCC does eventually reverse both the Title II classification and net neutrality rules, it could face lawsuits from consumer groups.
And, of course, some future Congress could just bypass the whole FCC rule-making process and pass a law settling the question of net neutrality.
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