After five years in a shallow grave, the FCC has revived the rules meant to force internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Verizon to treat all traffic equally. The agency voted in favor of a notice of proposed rulemaking Thursday, taking its first step toward reinstating net neutrality.
“Today, there is no expert agency ensuring that the internet is fast, open, and fair. And for everyone, everywhere to enjoy the full benefits of the internet age, internet access needs to be more than just accessible and affordable,” Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said ahead of Thursday’s vote. “The internet needs to be open.” The notice was supported by Rosenworcel and Democratic commissioners Anna Gomez and Geoffrey Starks; it was opposed by Republican commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington.
“The internet needs to be open.”
The FCC’s proposal reads similarly to the Obama-era Open Internet Order that the Trump FCC, led by Ajit Pai, repealed in 2017. In order to ban ISPs from blocking and throttling internet traffic, the agency plans to reclassify broadband from an information service to a common carrier under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, imposing stricter rules and oversight reserved for public utilities.
Over the next few months, the public is allowed to make comments on the proposal. Sometime after the commenting period closes, the agency will take a final vote approving the rule.
Since President Joe Biden’s first year in office, the administration has said reimplementing net neutrality was a priority. But the process was delayed time and time again. It took Biden more than nine months to pick a chair and nominate a final Democratic commissioner. Even then, that third Democrat, Gigi Sohn, was forced to withdraw her nomination following a torturous 16-month-long opposition campaign led by Senate Republicans. Until recently, hopes of bringing back net neutrality at a federal level had languished.
“Repeal of net neutrality put the agency on the wrong side of history.”
But in September, Gomez was confirmed by the Senate as the third Democratic commissioner. Gomez’s confirmation broke the nearly two-year deadlock that prevented the FCC from pursuing any policies that Republican commissioners wouldn’t support. Weeks after the FCC filled out, Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced that the agency was finally going to carry out the Biden administration’s open internet agenda.
“As a result of the previous FCC’s decision to abdicate authority, the agency charged with overseeing communications has limited ability to oversee these indispensable networks and make sure that for every consumer internet access is fast, open, and fair,” Rosenworcel said last month. “I believe this repeal of net neutrality put the agency on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the public.”
Net neutrality’s opponents have long argued that the rules would impose outdated and heavy-handed regulations on the telecom industry, which, they say, already provides great service and would never discriminate against certain kinds of internet traffic. “There is no reason to change what is already working well,” House Energy and Commerce Republicans wrote in a letter to Rosenworcel Tuesday. “Adding new regulations through reclassifying broadband is both unnecessary and unlawful.”
But telecom companies have defied the principles of net neutrality in the past. For example, Comcast made BitTorrent barely usable in 2007, and Verizon throttled a fire department’s data during a California wildfire as recently as 2018 after net neutrality was repealed.
Ahead of his dissent Thursday, Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr said, “Reinstating Title II is now an article of faith for many in Washington (and a handy fundraising tool to boot). But make no mistake: any FCC decision to impose Title II on the Internet will be overturned by the courts, by Congress, or by a future FCC.”