Net neutrality is a set of guidelines and principles passed by the FCC under the Obama administration that were meant to preserve an open internet. It means no ISP is allowed to show preferential treatment to particular services or websites — Verizon can’t throttle Netflix speeds if the service refuses to pay more, for example, or AT&T can’t block or slow access to a site because it doesn’t like its content.
The ruling comes despite requests for a delay in voting. The 3-to-2 decision comes after 18 attorneys general asked the FCC to delay the vote to investigate fake comments that flooded the public opinion comment period this summer. Twenty-eight senators sent a letter of their own to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, asking him to push the vote and suggesting his “proposal is fundamentally flawed.” Major tech companies, nonprofit organizations, and public interest groups have rallied against the repeal over the past few months, and a recent survey found most Americans were in favor of the 2015 net neutrality regulations.
The meeting was interrupted during Pai’s speech, on the advice of security after reports of a security threat were received. The room was evacuated, security ran a search with sniffer dogs, and people returned to their seats after a few minutes.
#NetNeutrality allowed me to invent the web. If protections are scrapped, innovators will have to ask ISPs for permission to get their ideas out – a disaster for creativity. A disaster for the internet. Tell your Reps to stop the vote. https://t.co/WlTfbe9ZNg … @webfoundation
— Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee) December 12, 2017
The 2015 decision classified broadband internet access service as a utility, dubbing ISPs as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act. It placed these providers under close governmental scrutiny to prevent unfair internet practices, but ISPs worried the government would potentially enforce price regulations, saying the regulatory uncertainty “undermined innovation and investment.”
Pai’s declaratory ruling will only require internet providers to be “transparent about their practices.” That means an ISP could slow down or block access to a service or website — they would just have to notify them why it’s happening.
“This plan would simply restore the successful, light-touch regulatory framework that governed the internet from 1996 to 2015,” Pai said in an opinion piece. “And importantly, it would get the government out of the business of micromanaging the internet.”
Proponents of net neutrality say the repeal could potentially transition the internet into two lanes — fast and slow lanes. ISPs could offer certain websites and services at faster speeds if companies were willing to pay a little extra — this is also known as Paid Prioritization. Major companies like Google and Facebook could afford this, but it would be detrimental to startups and growing services. Also, ISP customers could end up paying more for these services.
The repeal makes these ISPs powerful gatekeepers of the internet, but the declaratory ruling also shifts the role of protecting consumers’ online privacy back to the Federal Trade Commission.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn issued a strong dissent during the meeting, stating the new norm at the FCC is where the majority “ignores the will of the people.”
“When the current protections are abandoned, and the rules that have been officially in place since 2015 are repealed, we will have a Cheshire cat version of net neutrality,” Clyburn said. “We will be in a world where regulatory substance fades to black, and all that is left is a broadband provider’s toothy grin and those oh-so-comforting words: ‘We have every incentive to do the right thing.’ What they will soon have is every incentive to do their own thing.”
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel echoed Clyburn’s statements, saying the decision puts the FCC on the “wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public.”
“We’re told ‘don’t worry, the Federal Trade Commission will save us,'” Rosenworcel said. “But the FTC is not the expert agency for communications. It has authority over unfair and deceptive practices. But to evade FTC review, all any broadband provider will need to do is add new provisions to the fine print in its terms of service. In addition, it is both costly and impractical to report difficulties to the FTC.”
Commissioners Brendan Carr and Michael O’Rielly voted in favor of the repeal, and among many arguments, claimed the 2015 regulations harmed ISP growth. Comcast posted record profits in the second quarter of 2017.
Free Press, a nonpartisan net neutrality advocacy group, said in a report that it found “not a single publicly traded U.S. ISP ever told its investors (or the SEC) that Title II negatively impacted its own investments specifically.”
You can read our full breakdown of net neutrality to learn more.
The internet still works. Nothing about the way you interact online has changed — yet. ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T (and the current FCC) criticized net neutrality supporters for spreading hysteria on the subject.
“Opponents of this action have responded with hyperbole, demagoguery, and even personal threats,” National Cable & Telecommunications Association CEO Michael Powell said in a statement. “New-age Nostradamuses predict the internet will stop working, democracy will collapse, plague will ensue, and locusts will cover the land. With an ounce of reflection, one knows that none of this will come to pass, and the imagined doom will join the failed catastrophic predictions of Y2K and massive snowstorms that fizzle to mere dustings — all too common in Washington, D.C. Sadly, rational debate, like Elvis, has left the building.”
Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and other ISPs have voiced commitment to ensuring an open internet, but it all boils down to trust. Comcast already removed its public pledge to uphold net neutrality from its website earlier this year. The company said it has not entered any “paid prioritization” agreements and said it has no plans for it at the moment, but the repeal allows it to establish these measures in the future.
This story is developing.