Net neutrality, neutered: FCC votes out Obama-era rules

 In U.S.

Internet service providers got an early Christmas gift.

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules, handing the broadband and wireless industries a big victory in their battle against government oversight of the internet.

The Republican-led FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to dismantle the 2015 regulations, which ensured all traffic on the internet is treated equally, and prevented broadband and wireless providers from blocking or slowing online content. The agency also voted to eliminate the legal foundation that gives the FCC oversight over internet service providers. 

The vote was delayed briefly while security at FCC headquarters cleared the room. 

Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr called it “a great day for consumers, for innovation and for freedom.” He said the vote returns the FCC to a light regulatory regime that had worked for 20 years until they were changed in 2015.

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Mignon Clyburn, a Democratic commissioner, said she was outraged to watch the FCC “pull its own teeth, abdicating responsibility to protect the nation’s broadband consumers.”  

FCC commissioners voted 3-2 to dismantle Obama-era net neutrality regulation. 


The vote marks the latest twist in an 18-year debate over how the internet should be regulated or even if any rules are needed to make sure companies offering internet access don’t act as online gatekeepers.

One side says the Obama-era decision to classify broadband as a public utility ensures the FCC can establish enforceable rules to protect an open internet. An open internet means no fast or slow lanes and ensures free speech is protected online. The view is supported by consumer advocates, internet companies like Facebook and Google, and nonprofits, including the New York Public Library and First Amendment advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union. 

On the other side of the debate are cable operators and phone companies, like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, who say that treating broadband like the old telephone network hurts investment and stifles innovation.

The repeal of the rules was spearheaded by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was named head of the agency earlier this year by President Donald Trump. He has called the rules “heavy-handed,” and contends that they’ve deterred innovation and depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks. He said ditching the rules and reinstating the previous broadband classification is a return to the FCC’s “light touch” approach to regulation that started under former President Bill Clinton.

“Returning to this legal framework is not going to destroy the internet,” Pai said in his statement. “The internet as we know it is not ending. This will not destroy democracy … Americans will still be able to access sites they want to visit and services they want to use. There will still be cops on the beat the way things were prior to 2015.”

FCC authority gutted

In scrapping the 2015 rules and reinstating a non-regulated classification to broadband, Pai has abdicated much of the FCC’s authority and handed oversight to another federal agency, the Federal Trade Commission.

Pai argues this puts broadband companies on the same footing as internet companies, like Google and Facebook, which must also abide by FTC guidelines. Under this framework, he says the FTC will be able to protect net neutrality by enforcing antitrust law and broadband providers’ terms of service, which he expects will include voluntary promises to abide by net neutrality principles. 

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But net neutrality supporters say these protections are insufficient because the FTC only considers harm to consumers after it occurs, rather than trying to prevent harm, as the FCC rules were designed to do.

“With this vote, the FCC is getting out of the business of consumer protection and promoting the public interest entirely,” said Gigi Sohn, an aide to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who architected the 2015 rules. “The complete abdication of the FCC’s oversight over broadband internet access will leave every American internet user out in the cold.”

A handful of states, including California and New York, said they would challenge the move through a combination of possible legislation and legal action. 

The move takes the US out of the international trend toward ensuring all internet content is treated equally. The EU has had net neutrality protections since 2015 and tightened its guidelines last year. The Netherlands and Slovenia have adopted even stronger rules.

Other countries like Chile and India also have adopted some form of net neutrality, while several others have been considering regulation.

If US service providers charge companies extra fees for faster service, however, consumers may face higher prices if those costs are passed on. US companies, like Netflix and Amazon, have customers around the world.

Public outcry

The public outcry over the repeal of the rules has been swift and loud. Opponents of the rule change say it gives too much control to big broadband and wireless companies and would allow these players to act as gatekeepers to the internet, deciding which services and websites consumers access and which they cannot.

Groups such as the ACLU, American Library Association and others have sent letters to the FCC and Congress opposing the measure. Tech companies, including Amazon, Etsy, Kickstarter, Mozilla and Vimeo, have joined in online protests. And several notable tech pioneers, including Vint Cerf, a founding figure of the internet; Steve Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple; and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, signed a letter admonishing the FCC for its plan and asking that the vote be delayed.

“You don’t understand how the internet works,” the open letter posted on Tumblr said. “The FCC’s rushed and technically incorrect proposed order to abolish net neutrality protections without any replacement is an imminent threat to the internet we worked so hard to create.”

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