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FCC Chairman Proposes Repeal of Net Neutrality Rules

WASHINGTON — FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will seek the repeal of almost all of the agency’s net neutrality regulations at its Dec. 14 meeting, a reversal from years of efforts to establish enduring rules of the road for the internet.

His proposal, which is expected to be adopted, would roll back rules that prohibit internet providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon from blocking or throttling traffic, or from selling “fast lanes” for speedier access to consumers.

The idea behind the current net neutrality rules is that all web traffic should be treated equally — what advocates say has prevented the internet from becoming a walled off universe of tiers, akin to subscribing to cable TV. But Pai believes that antitrust and consumer laws, as well as the marketplace, will be enough of a check on anticompetitive behavior.

“For almost twenty years, the Internet thrived under the light-touch regulatory approach established by President Clinton and a Republican Congress,” Pai said in a statement “This bipartisan framework led the private sector to invest $1.5 trillion building communications networks throughout the United States. And it gave us an Internet economy that became the envy of the world.

“But in 2015, the prior FCC bowed to pressure from President Obama. On a party-line vote, it imposed heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the Internet. That decision was a mistake. It’s depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation.”

Pai’s proposal, which he circulated to fellow commissioners on Tuesday, will retain one rule: Internet service providers will be required to reveal their traffic management practices. That includes disclosing when they are blocking or throttling certain sites, and the type of content that is being affected. They also will have to disclose when they are prioritizing content they own, or those who pay for speedier access.

An FCC official said that the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission would have joint authority in making sure that the transparency guidelines are enforced, and the FTC also will have oversight over privacy protections. The proposal also eliminates a “general conduct” rule, designed to ensure that ISPs do not engage in anticompetitive conduct.

“Working with my colleagues, I look forward to returning to the light-touch, market-based framework that unleashed the digital revolution and benefited consumers here and around the world,” Pai said in the statement.

He plans to release the full proposal on Wednesday, and it is expected to show how the FCC determined that the cost of some of the existing net neutrality rules outweigh the benefits. Pai outlined the plan in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

Pai also will seek to repeal the FCC’s reclassification of internet service as a common carrier. That regulatory maneuver gave the agency the legal footing to impose the robust rules in 2015.

Given the FCC’s Republican majority, Pai has the votes for his proposal. Commissioner Brendan Carr said that he would vote for it, and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly opposed previous FCC efforts to impose net neutrality rules. Carr predicted that the light-touch regulation “will promote innovation and investment for all Americans.”

But an array of public interest groups and Democratic lawmakers are expected to sound the alarm about the pending action in the next three weeks. Fight for the Future is planning a protest at Verizon stores on Dec. 7.

In the lead up to the FCC’s vote in 2015, net neutrality advocates flooded the FCC with comments, staged demonstrations in front of the agency and even blocked the chairman from leaving his home one morning.

As he did in the previous net neutrality battle, John Oliver, host of HBO’s “This Week Tonight,” implored viewers in May to submit comments to save the net neutrality rules.

This time around, the FCC received more than 22 million comments, shattering previous records, although there are doubts as to how many of those responses were unique.

An FCC official said that the vast majority of the comments were from form letters, and that 7.5 million of the responses were exactly the same and came from 45,000 unique names and addresses. Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, said that his office has tried to investigate whether false identities were being used to drown out real people and businesses, but he has not received cooperation from the agency.

The FCC’s repeal of the rules will almost surely be challenged in court, on the grounds that the agency had not established enough of a rationale for reversing itself so soon after adopting the net neutrality regulations. A central point of contention is likely to be over whether the 2015 regulations curbed investment and innovation.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat who supported that net neutrality rules adopted two years ago, said in a statement, “In just two days, many of us will join friends and family in celebrating the spirit of Thanksgiving. But as we learned today, the FCC majority is about to deliver a cornucopia full of rotten fruit, stale grains, and wilted flowers topped off with a plate full of burnt turkey.”

She added, “Their Destroying Internet Freedom Order would dismantle net neutrality as we know it by giving the green light to our nation’s largest broadband providers to engage in anti-consumer practices, including blocking, slowing down traffic, and paid prioritization of online applications and services.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote on Twitter, “I’m going to give it all I’ve got. Our Internet economy is the envy of the world. It was built on a foundation of openness. We’re going to have to fight to keep it that way–for all of us. Make noise. Make change. Let’s save .”

Tom Wheeler, the former FCC chairman who championed the FCC’s current rules, said in a blog post that the proposed actions were a “shameful sham” and that the agency “has sold out to the wishes of the companies it is supposed to regulate over the consumers it is supposed to protect.”

The FCC’s action is a boon for internet service providers, who have long decried the FCC’s approach as regulatory overreach. Jonathan Spalter, the CEO of USTelecom, a trade association for many internet providers, said that “the removal of antiquated, restrictive regulations will pave the way for broadband network investment, expansion and upgrades.”

Companies like AT&T and Comcast support the FCC’s action, and representatives from each of the companies issued statements in which they insisted that they do not engage in blocking or throttling of internet traffic anyway.

“All major ISPs have publicly committed to preserving an open internet and the proposed transparency rules will require that all ISPs clearly and publicly articulate their internet practices,” said Joan Marsh, an AT&T executive vice president. “Any ISP that is so foolish as to seek to engage in gatekeeping will be quickly and decisively called out.”

By contrast, internet companies like Netflix and Google participated in a July “day of action” to urge the FCC to retain the rules, although they have not been as visible as they were in previous battles over rules of the road for the internet.

“Netflix supports strong net neutrality. We oppose the FCC’s proposal to roll back these core protections,” a spokesperson for the company said.

Google said in a statement that the current rules “are working well for consumers and we’re disappointed in the proposal announced today.” Facebook had a similar statement.

Other companies, like Amazon, deferred to the statements coming out of their trade group, the Internet Association.

Michael Beckerman, the president and CEO of the association, said in a statement that the current FCC rules “created bright-line, enforceable net neutrality protections that guarantee consumers access to the entire internet and preserve competition online.

“This proposal fails to achieve any of these objectives. Consumers have little choice in their ISP, and service providers should not be allowed to use this gatekeeper position at the point of connection to discriminate against websites and apps.”

Hollywood studios have not officially weighed in on the issue. The six members of the MPAA are said to be in disagreement over the rules. Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, opposed FCC efforts two years ago to reclassify internet service like a utility. But other content players wonder if they could benefit from regulatory protections that would provide guarantees in how their content is delivered to consumers online.

The Writers Guild of America West condemned the FCC’s plans, saying that the proposal “is yet another step on the path towards total corporate control of the internet. Pai’s intention to gut net neutrality rules has been evident since day one, and the rulemaking process has completely ignored the overwhelming public support for these rules and the unequivocal benefits of an open internet.”

The FCC has had a long history of trying to establish guidelines and rules for the internet. In 2005, the commission adopted a set of net neutrality principles, but Comcast successfully challenged them in court after the agency tried to crackdown on some of its traffic management practices.

In 2010, the FCC adopted what it thought were enforceable rules, claiming that Section 706 of the Communications Act  gave it the authority to impose them. Those prohibited internet providers from discriminating in the way that they handled web traffic. Verizon challenged the rules, and most of the regulations were thrown out in a 2014 ruling.

So the agency in 2015 reclassified the internet as a common carrier, a designation akin to that of a utility, as part of an effort to establish a set of robust rules that could survive a court challenge. So far, they have. But Donald Trump’s election shifted the ideological makeup of the FCC, and Pai is following through on promises to take a “weed wacker” to FCC regulations.

Janko Roettgers contributed to this report.

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