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FCC votes to begin overturning net neutrality

FCC votes to begin overturning net neutrality

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Speaks At American Enterprise Institute
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The FCC has voted to begin undoing the net neutrality rules that were put in place just two years ago.

In a 2-to-1 decision, the commission voted to open debate on what are essentially two things: first, a proposal to reverse the Title II designation used to enforce tough net neutrality rules on internet providers; and second, the question of whether the FCC ought to impose any kind of net neutrality rules at all.

Today’s vote doesn’t immediately undo the 2015 Open Internet Order. Instead, it kicks off a public commenting period that will last for several months during which companies, interest groups, and advocates can file their thoughts with the FCC.

It’s not clear which, if any, net neutrality rules will survive

When the comment period closes, likely later this year, the commission will then put forward a finalized proposal, theoretically taking into account those comments, and vote to put that into the rulebooks.

At this point in time, it’s hard to envision the commission not overturning Title II by the end of this proceeding. Two of the three people leading the FCC right now were opposed to that classification in the first place, which means the votes are there to make it happen.

Internet providers and FCC chairman Ajit Pai have tried to separate what they’re doing here — updating the regulatory classification of internet providers — from net neutrality. But the reality is that there’s no way for the FCC to enforce tough net neutrality rules without relying on Title II as a legal backing. So in reversing Title II, the FCC is necessarily gutting its net neutrality rules.

Today’s vote also opens up a broad inquiry into what, if any, protections the FCC should add to replace the outgoing net neutrality rules. The commission seems skeptical that any net neutrality rules are needed at all, saying at one point that there is “virtually no quantifiable evidence of consumer harm” to guard against.

“The internet was not broken in 2015,” Pai said today. “We were not living in a digital dystopia.”

“A hollow theory of trickle-down internet economics”

The commission’s lone Democrat, commissioner Mignon Clyburn, strongly disagreed that the FCC should lighten its oversight, saying that going through with this proposal “would deeply damage the ability of the FCC to be a champion of consumers and competition in the 21st century.”

Since taking over the agency, Pai has put an emphasis on expanding broadband access to areas of the US that still don’t have any providers. His hope is that by deregulating internet providers and removing restrictions on business models, like the creation of fast and slow lanes, ISPs will have more incentive to build out their networks and reach new customers.

Clyburn strongly disagreed with that that line of thinking. This proposal, she said, “contains a hollow theory of trickle-down internet economics, suggesting that if we just remove enough regulations from your broadband provider, they will automatically improve your service, pass along discounts from those speculative savings, deploy more infrastructure with haste, and treat edge providers fairly.”

During the meeting, Pai read letters from smaller internet providers claiming they had slowed network expansion because of the Title II regulations. “Consider for a moment why these statements are so important,” Pai said. “These are the very companies that are critical for injecting competition into the broadband marketplace, the very companies that are critical to closing the digital divide.”

Pai said the public would have 90 days to leave comments on the proposal.