While Americans are busy traveling, paying attention to Black Friday deals, and spending time with family, the Federal Communications Commission will be rolling out its least popular proposal of the year: its final plan to dismantle net neutrality — the set of rules that prevent internet providers from giving some websites and internet traffic an advantage over others. According to The Wall Street Journal, the FCC is expected to unveil its proposal this week, less than three months after the public comment period ended on the initial proposal. The process generated 22 million comments for the commission to read and consider.
The FCC’s final proposal is likely to completely undo the strict net neutrality rules that the FCC enacted just two years ago. To do that, the proposal will have to reclassify internet providers as information services, under Title I of the Communications Act, instead of common carriers, under Title II of the Act. This seemingly dull legal distinction is the difference between giving the FCC some oversight of ISPs (Title I) and the ability to place rigorous consumer protections on them (Title II).
Republicans argue that net neutrality hampers investment in broadband, but there’s little evidence
Republicans at the FCC, who are behind this proposal, argue that the stricter rules enacted two years ago have hampered investment in broadband and caused internet providers to slow the expansion of their networks. This is a problem, given that the FCC is tasked with ensuring the entire country gets connected. But there isn’t a ton of data to back this up. It’s only been two years, and though there was a small dip in investment, it was also attributable to factors like high oil prices and costly acquisitions. The Republican commissioners also just generally believe that making companies fill out compliance forms and follow rules is onerous and prevents innovation.
Supporters of net neutrality argue that its provisions are necessary to prevent internet providers from squeezing more money out of consumers and destroying small businesses that are trying to compete with established web giants. One fear is that without net neutrality, internet providers will begin offering “paid fast lanes,” which would allow wealthy companies to pay ISPs for a better connection to consumers. That could create real competition problems: Netflix, for instance, can afford to pay these fees and offer a snappy connection to everyone, but it’ll be much harder for a new streaming service to attract customers and get off the ground without a costly investment in delivery speed.
Net neutrality rules also prevent internet providers from advantaging their own content and blocking competitors’ apps and services. Comcast, for instance, might want to deliver video from NBC, which it owns, faster than video from Netflix, which it competes with. It might also choose to exempt NBC video from counting toward a subscriber’s data cap, encouraging them to watch NBC instead of a competitor. Likewise, net neutrality prevents things like Verizon blocking an NFC payments app because it would rather you use an app called ISIS that it had an investment in.
What, if any, consumer protections will replace the ones being removed?
For now, we don’t have a full idea of what the FCC’s final proposal will look like — mostly because its initial proposal was so incredibly vague. It seems very safe to assume that it’ll undo the Title II classification of internet providers and therefore remove all current net neutrality protections, since that’s the crux of the initial proposal. But there are some very big open questions beyond that: namely, what consumer protections will the FCC put in place of the rules that it’s striking down? That is, if it puts in place any new rules at all.
A federal court has already ruled that, under the Title I classification the FCC plans to go back to, the commission doesn’t have the authority to put in place full net neutrality rules. It can put in place some rules, but they can’t go as far as, for example, completely banning paid fast lanes. So when the proposal is released, we’ll be looking to find out how far it goes to restrict paid fast lanes, limit blocking of apps and services, and prevent unfair throttling of web traffic.
FCC leadership seems skeptical that protections around these things are needed at all. And Republicans have argued that restricting them would limit ISPs’ ability to offer new pricing models that could potentially allow them to extend service to low-income and rural communities that otherwise wouldn’t be profitable enough to serve. (There is a tragic irony in Republicans voting to pull back on low-income broadband subsidies just last week.) Because of those concerns, it’s also fairly safe to guess that whatever remnants of the net neutrality protections remain are likely to be much more limited in scope and offer a lot more flexibility to ISPs, even if it means opening up anti-competitive risks.
The FCC’s next meeting, where it votes on proposals, is December 14th. That’s when it’s expected to vote on its plan to reverse net neutrality. There’s no firm date on when the proposal will be announced, but the commission usually details its plans for each meeting several weeks ahead of time, and, as of this year, publicly reveals the text of what it’ll be voting on, too. Scheduling the net neutrality announcement for Thanksgiving week may be a coincidence, but it certainly seems like the FCC is trying to release this plan at a time when it’ll be harder for net neutrality advocates to give it their full attention.