The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to repeal its 2015 net neutrality protections in favour of a new “light-touch” regulatory framework.
Rules adopted by the commission today (14 December) restored classification of broadband internet access as a Title I information service and regulatory jurisdiction over internet service providers (ISPs) to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). New transparency requirements – which force ISPs to disclose information about practices like blocking, throttling and paid prioritisation of content – were also implemented as part of the measure.
The vote on the repeal proposal was briefly delayed due to a security alert, albeit by only a little over ten minutes.
Approval came despite vociferous objections from commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, the latter of whom called the measure a “legally lightweight, consumer harming, corporate enabling, destroying internet freedom order”.
Clyburn pointed out the FTC “may not even have authority over broadband providers in the first place,” and blasted the “soon-to-be toothless FCC” for “handing the keys to the internet over to a handful of multibillion dollar corporations”. She warned providers now may be able to “quietly roll out” paid prioritisation or similarly biased programs and prevent consumers from fighting back with non-disclosure agreements and mandatory arbitration clauses built into service agreements.
She highlighted the massive public backlash and bipartisan calls from Congress to delay the vote. The commission’s action despite the outcry spoke “volumes about who is being heard” at the FCC, Clyburn said.
The commission’s majority defended itself. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said he reviewed substantive comments submitted in the record “with interest”, but said he was “simply not persuaded that heavy-handed rules are needed to protect against hypothetical harm”. O’Rielly added paid prioritisation could serve to enable new technologies and mission critical use cases.
“I, for one, see great value in the prioritisation of telemedicine and autonomous car technology over cat videos.”
Chairman Ajit Pai (pictured) explained “it is not the job of the government to be picking winners and losers in the internet economy,” adding it is “time for the internet, once again, to be driven by engineers, entrepreneuers and consumers, rather than lawyers, accountants and bureaucrats”.
Under light-touch regulation “broadband providers will have stronger incentives to build networks, especially in unserved areas, and to upgrade networks to gigabit speeds and 5G”, he added.
During a media call held ahead of the vote, the heads of three wired and wireless industry associations – the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), CTIA and USTelecom – vowed to protect open internet principles in the wake of the vote. Prominent internet providers Comcast, Charter Communications and Altice USA are among NCTA’s members, while CTIA counts AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile on its rolls.
NCTA CEO Michael Powell claimed the FCC’s order will not impact consumer activities in “any meaningful or measureable way”, assuring users their internet experience “will not change in any significant or substantial way” in the days, weeks and years following the vote.
In a statement released immediately after the FCC’s vote, AT&T said it does “not block websites, nor censor online content, nor throttle or degrade traffic based on the content, nor unfairly discriminate in our treatment of internet traffic”. The operator stated it continues to support a legislative solution from Congress on net neutrality.
Comcast issued a similar statement pledging not to create internet fast lanes and stating “customers will continue to enjoy all of the benefits of an open internet today, tomorrow, and in the future. Period.”
Rosenworcel hinted the net neutrality battle will continue “in the courts, in Congress, wherever we need to go to ensure that net neutrality stays the law of the land.”