The FCC Repeals Internet Regulations After Months Of Wild Protests

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed Obama-era internet regulations Thursday in a 3-2 vote, signaling a culmination to a long-winded and highly heated debate.

Net neutrality — an amorphous concept generally meaning all internet traffic should be treated equally — has been fiercely contested in recent years, increasing in intensity over recent months. Specifically, the best way to enforce net neutrality, or ensure that internet service providers (ISPs) don’t partake in unfair practices, is the crux of the policy dispute.

Proponents of the net neutrality rules imposed by former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler argue that placing the government at the center of the internet is needed to ensure wireless carriers like Comcast and Verizon don’t triage consumers by offering different services with varying speeds, also known as fast lanes. They further contend that the regulations are integral to preventing content owners (think Netflix and Hulu) from paying broadband providers to “cut to the front of the line” at congested nodes of internet traffic, also known as “paid prioritization.” Such corporations could also conceivably favor their own content over that of others in what sometimes is called “vertical prioritization.”

Say, for example, Comcast wanted to encourage its customers to use its On Demand platform for entertainment viewing purposes, it may slow Netflix’s streaming capabilities. Thus far, there has been minimal evidence of ISPs engaging in throttling or paid prioritization. Yet, advocates of the rules argue that it will likely occur prevalently, especially as the internet ecosystem becomes even more complex.

To enforce the rules, Wheeler made the internet a public utility, like water or electricity, under the Title II classification — a fact some supporters of the now-nixed net neutrality regulations are unaware of.

Critics of the net neutrality rules, and thus proponents of the FCC’s decision to repeal the mandate, are generally supportive of a neutral internet, just not in its present state under the Title II category. The onus to police the industry from engaging in anti-competitive behavior has fallen on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for years (along with the Department of Justice’s own oversight). The FCC’s repeal plans to restore jurisdictional authority to the FTC.

Even ISPs have said they agree there should be a neutral internet as long as it doesn’t overly burden their ability to operate freely and offer special deals that can benefit consumers.

“Your internet Thursday afternoon will not change in any significant or substantial way from the internet you are experiencing today on Wednesday. Nor will it be different next week, nor will it be different on a Thursday a year from now,” Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA, a trade association representing the internet and television association, said in a media briefing. “This isn’t just a hollow promise or pledge — it’s rooted in sound self-interest. I think one of the things that the debate often obscures is the fact that ISPs like net neutrality too … they make a lot of money on an open internet.”

He says that the industry has “discovered over decades of providing these services that an open internet model is much more profitable than a closed internet model, or one that tends to create artificial scarcity,” and believes clamping down on users’ capabilities is bad business.

Powell provides an example of one of the most well known online service providers in history realizing this.

“Ever since AOL abandoned the use of closed models, industrial actors have recognized the folly frequently of that model, and continued to pursue that otherwise,” he said.

He says the industry is quarreling over how the FCC of the past, specifically under the later years of the Obama administration, decided to mandate net neutrality rules specifically through Title II classification and delegate itself enormous power.

Nevertheless, the clamor over the debate has caused some to become so incensed they have resorted to vile, racist actions. (RELATED: Net Neutrality Activists Tied To Violent Groups, Convicted Al-Qaida Terrorist)

Non-bigoted arguments made in op-eds and from grassroots organizations lack the hateful content but still use extreme — and arguably hyperbolic — language.

“Trump’s FCC Wants To Kill A Free And Open Internet,” reads one.

“Everything Ajit Pai Has Fucked Up in the Last Three Months,” reads an irreverently critical headline from Gizmodo.

“White House Endorses FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s Quest To Murder Net Neutrality,” reads another.

The brouhaha has been so steadily raucous — and in most instances elusive of actual nuanced policy debates — that Jon Leibowitz, a Democratic commissioner at the FTC from 2004-2013, felt the need to write an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal (which officially endorsed Pai’s rollback) titled “Everybody Calm Down About Net Neutrality.”

“The rhetoric over net neutrality has reached a fever pitch, with each side predicting dire consequences if opponents get their way,” opened Leibowitz, who was was FTC chairman starting in 2009. “There is a critical need for protections from anticompetitive practices online, but both sides are exaggerating. Just as the sky did not fall when the FCC imposed its current Title II version of net neutrality in 2015, it also won’t fall if the FCC reclassifies broadband as an information service later this week.”

He describes the situation as that of “Chicken Little” because “the FTC, my former agency, is an experienced cop on the beat in this area. It protected internet users from unfair, deceptive and anticompetitive practices for the two decades before the FCC’s 2015 rule, which removed its jurisdiction.”

He also references aforementioned historical events.

“Consider the core principles of net neutrality, which I have long supported: unfettered access of the entire (lawful) internet and transparency about broadband providers’ practices,” wrote Leibowitz in TheWSJ. “The FTC worked on those issues for years. In 2000, it conditioned AOL’s acquisition of Time Warner on the combined company’s commitment to treat competing internet providers operating on its network fairly.”

Pai says his plan, which is supported by the two other Republican Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, will satisfy both those core principles due to a mandate that ISPs be transparent with their practices and offerings. That way, the FTC steps in only when it deems necessary.

“Tomorrow is an important day as the FCC will vote on rolling back heavy handed Obama-era Internet regulations,” Pai told The Daily Caller News Foundation on Wednesday.

Critics of the repeal, on the other hand, believe enforcing transparency isn’t completely doable or viable.

Setting aside the extremely violent threats made against Pai, as well as a Republican U.S. congressman, some proponents of the repeal consider the public attention to the issue a good thing. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: Emails Show Obama-Era FCC Gave Special Treatment To Liberal Groups)

“Americans cherish the free and open Internet, so the public has rightly expressed a range of views on this topic,” Carr told TheDCNF. “Now, some of the stories trending out there are simply fanning the false flames of fear. Indeed, the apocalyptic rhetoric is surprising, even for Washington standards.”

He says that the move to repeal isn’t “a radical new experiment,” but rather an apt reversion to “the same regulatory framework — Title I — that governed the internet in 2015 and for the prior 20 years.”

Overall, Carr expects the rollback to be a big win for consumers and for innovation, the latter of which will help the former.

Roslyn Layton, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who also served on the 2016-2017 FCC Presidential Transition Team, said in a prior interview that the net neutrality rules imposed in 2015 don’t comport with innovation. (RELATED: The Race To 5G Technology: How America Could Lose Out On The Next Biggest Thing)

For example, 5G, the next generation of wireless technology, will allow significantly faster internet and spur further development of technological capabilities that turn former pipe dreams into tangible realities. But this will only occur if net neutrality rules are fully repealed as planned and broadband providers are permitted to expand and invest, including in remote, rural, low-income areas of the country, according to Layton.

Commissioner O’Rielly agrees.

“Chairman Pai’s proposal will pass 3-2 tomorrow. As a result, in the short term, it is unlikely that consumers will notice any changes to their broadband experience,” O’Rielly told TheDCNF on Wednesday. “In the long term, by lifting Title II and removing heavy-handed regulations that inject uncertainty into the market – such as a requirement to come to the FCC to ask permission to innovate – I expect to see more investment and innovation in the broadband industry.”

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel did not respond to TheDCNF’s most recent request for comment by time of publication, and Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn declined to comment for the time being.

The article has been updated to reflect the finalized voting, the results of which were highly expected.

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