FCC Repeals Net Neutrality Rules Amid Protests, Lawsuit Threats

Ajit Pai net neutrality vote
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The FCC voted to repeal most of its rules of the road for the internet on Thursday, in a contentious decision that will likely be challenged in court.

By vote of 3-2, the agency rolled back a set of net neutrality regulations. Internet providers will no longer be prohibited from from blocking or throttling content, or dividing the web into paid “fast-lanes” in which content companies can get speedier access to consumers.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai predicted that the agency move would lead to greater innovation, with companies freed from heavy regulation.

“It is time for the internet once again to be driven by engineers and entrepreneurs and consumers, rather than lawyers and accountants and bureaucrats,” Pai said at the meeting. “It is time for us to act to bring faster, better and cheaper internet access to all Americans.”

The FCC meeting chamber was packed full and, given the emotion and acrimony surrounding the issue, there was heavy security.

Just as Pai was delivering his comments, he stopped. Security personnel then asked that the room be cleared because of a security issue. After the room was checked, the meeting resumed after about 10 minutes.

More than 100 protesters gathered outside of the FCC’s headquarters, as the commission was poised to vote to scrap most of its net neutrality rules, in which internet providers are required to treat all traffic equally.

Pai declined calls from congressional Democrats, a group of 18 state attorneys general, and many activists to at least delay the vote. Pai and two other Republican commissioners, Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, are expected to vote in favor of the proposal to roll back the current rules.

Public interest groups and internet activists — ranging from pioneer Tim Berners-Lee to actress Alyssa Milano to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — have tried to call attention to the FCC’s action and put pressure on members of Congress. They counted as a victory a statement earlier this week from Mike Coffman, a Republican congressman from Colorado, who called on Pai to delay the vote out of concern that it would have “significant unintended negative consequences.”

Activists staged a demonstration outside the FCC in the hours before the meeting. Among the speakers was Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who predicted that the agency’s repeal of the rules would be a campaign issue in the 2018 midterms.

“This is about ensuring that every voice can be heard,” Markey told the crowd, adding that he planned to pursue a resolution to force a congressional vote on the FCC’s action.

Also speaking was FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who, along with Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, opposed the repeal.

She said that net neutrality is “about internet equality” and that, in the long run, “We will be victorious.”

At the FCC meeting, Clyburn said that “the public can plainly see, that a soon-to-be-toothless FCC, is handing the keys to the Internet. The Internet, one of the most remarkable, empowering, enabling inventions of our lifetime, over to a handful of multi-billion dollar corporations.

“And if past is prologue, those very same broadband internet service providers, that the majority says you should trust to do right by you, will put profits and shareholder returns above what is best for you,” she added.

Rosenworcel faulted the process, and said that the FCC was ignoring faults with its public comment process, and said that the agency had a “cavalier disregard” for public sentiment.

The FCC’s vote also prohibits states and localities from passing their own net neutrality rules, as they would be superseded by federal authority.

Pai has been adamant in his view that the current regulatory framework has choked investment and that, freed of those constraints, telecom and cable companies will build out their infrastructure. In an interview for public radio’s “Marketplace” on Wednesday, he said that smaller internet providers have told him they have been constrained in investing in rural and low-income urban areas.

He said critics have engaged in “hysteria and misinformation,” including the suggestion that the internet “as we know it is about to end.”

“Quite simply, we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence,” Pai said at Thursday’s meeting. He also said that the decision will restore “regulatory parity” between ISPs and internet sites, like Google, Facebook and Netflix, which were not subject to the same regulation.

O’Rielly also railed against some of the rhetoric surrounding the debate, saying that the decision “will not break the internet.”

“I am simply not persuaded that heavy handed rules are needed to protect against imaginable harms,” he said.

Carr said that the “apocalyptic rhetoric is quite something, even by Washington standards.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that “the Trump administration supports the FCC’s effort to roll back burdensome regulations.”

The FCC is reversing the regulatory framework that was put in place just over two years ago, when the Obama-era FCC reclassified the internet as a “Title II” common carrier, a regulatory designation. That gave the agency the authority to pass rules that banned blocking and throttling of content, or selling faster lanes to companies wanting to get speedier access to consumers. Back then, the FCC’s moves brought cheers from the audience in the chamber, including from Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple.

Many of those same players are speaking out this time around, but the debate is perhaps far more acrimonious. Pai has said that he has received threats, as has his family. The FCC received about 22 million comments during a public input period, but a number of analyses have shown that millions of responses were from suspicious accounts and even stolen identities.

Pai’s proposal retains and updates a set of rules that require ISPs to disclose how they handle traffic. The ISP will have to identify the specific content that is being blocked or throttled, as well as any traffic getting preferential treatment because of payment for fast lanes. The Federal Trade Commission would have a greater role in handling consumer complaints.

Comcast, AT&T, and other internet providers say they have policies not to block or throttle traffic anyway. “Despite repeated distortions and biased information, as well as misguided, inaccurate attacks from detractors, our internet service is not going to change,” Comcast senior executive vice president David L. Cohen said in a blog post.

But among plenty of activists, whether outside of the FCC or online on social media, there is plenty of distrust that major ISPs will not try to use the lighter touch regulation to their advantage. Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in an interview on Wednesday for Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM, said the vote is a victory for telecom and cable companies, and that the danger is that the internet will begin to resemble the tiered system of cable TV platforms.

Net neutrality advocates have on their side major internet companies like Twitter, Google, and Netflix, some of which have posted messages or statistics to urge the FCC to retain the rules.

Michael Beckerman, the president and CEO of the Internet Association, which represents those major internet sites, said “today’s vote represents a departure from more than a decade of broad, bipartisan consensus on the rules governing the internet. Relying on ISPs to live up to their own ‘promises’ is not net neutrality and is bad for consumers.”

Before 2015, the FCC had a set of net neutrality principles and later a set of rules that were overturned after ISPs challenged them in court.

This time, Beckerman said the Internet Association is weighing legal options. Other groups, like the National Hispanic Media Coalition, plan to challenge the repeal in court. Shortly after the vote, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he would lead a multi-state lawsuit. A key issue will be whether Pai’s FCC has made a valid case for overturning the rules just two years after they were put in place.

While those on both sides of the net neutrality debate see a legislative solution as a way to settle the issue, once and for all, so far there appears to be little movement in coming up with such a bill. Given the fervor over the FCC’s latest action, that seems unlikely even into 2018.

Just outside of the FCC, activists placed flowers in the sidewalk to mourn the demise of the existing net neutrality framework.

Among those who trekked to the rally was Barbara Perrone, who travelled Delaware along with her son, Garrett, 16, and his friend, Connel Daly.

“I am old enough to remember when information was very hard to come by, and what it is like when you may need to go to your library. So I think it is really really important,” Perrone said.