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Net neutrality is suddenly on the chopping block

Against almost all expectations, Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States, and suddenly, the future of the open internet looks radically different.

The future of the open internet looks radically different

The release of the FCC’s net neutrality rules in 2015 heralded one of the most important progressive changes to the internet in memory. The rules, which barred data throttling and paid fast lanes, were celebrated as a central tenet of Obama-era government regulation. At the time, Obama said the "decision will protect innovation and create a level playing field for the next generation of entrepreneurs."

Now it seems possible that next generation won’t see net neutrality in action. Although telecom policy was hardly a central pillar of Trump’s candidacy, he has gone on record against it. "Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab," Trump tweeted in 2014. "Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media." (It’s unclear what Trump means with comparisons to the FCC’s long-eliminated Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to provide airtime for opposing views. Conservative media was also not "targeted" by net neutrality in any tangible way.)

Trump's fellow Republicans have tried to roll back the regulations

Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress, who retained a majority in the House and Senate, have also roundly criticized the rules. In 2014, Ted Cruz called net neutrality "Obamacare for the internet," claiming it would slow down private sector innovation. That view was shared by many of his colleagues, who, with help from telecom dollars, have repeatedly floated challenges to net neutrality. Those efforts have failed, and in June, an appeals court upheld the FCC’s order, beating back a legal challenge from the telecom industry.

With a Republican-controlled White House and Congress, however, it’s not difficult to see those rules being gutted. In May, the House passed the "No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act," which activists argued would effectively stifle any FCC attempts at net neutrality enforcement. That measure was largely symbolic legislation for conservatives. No matter how far such efforts advanced, they were ultimately heading for President Obama’s desk — where a prompt veto had always been promised. Clinton pledged similar support, and even with a Republican-controlled Congress, she would have likely been able to forestall any major rollbacks. "We have an obligation to protect an open internet and defend net neutrality," she tweeted in June.

"We have an obligation to protect an open internet and defend net neutrality," Clinton said this year.

President Trump will be unlikely to have similar qualms, and the dismantling could begin in earnest sooner rather than later. Politico reported last month that Jeffrey Eisenach, a longtime critic of FCC regulation, has been tapped for Trump’s presidential transition team. (Eisenach’s dual role as a conservative think tank scholar and paid consultant for Verizon was also detailed in a recent New York Times story.) Although it can sometimes be difficult to determine Trump’s positions from his public statements, the move seems to be a definitive sign that a Trump administration will roll back the FCC’s telecom regulations. Trump FCC commission appointments will also likely swing power back to conservatives at the agency.

There’s reason to believe Trump will not take a uniformly conservative stance in some related policy battles. He has loudly proclaimed his opposition to the proposed AT&T–Time Warner merger deal, which now faces renewed doubt about its feasibility. Trump has been silent on broadband expansion, another major issue for the Obama administration, although he has promised general infrastructure improvements.

Already, proponents of net neutrality are bracing for impact. Dish Network CEO Charlie Ergen said today that he expected "challenged or weakened" net neutrality rules in the future.

The only question may be when.