On July 12, 2017, a number of website landing pages will display “blocked,” “please upgrade,” or “paying customers only” banners. Fortunately for active users, the banners will only last 24 hours. These protest banners (example below) will be part of “The Day of Action”,which is supported by the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, GitHub, Reddit, OkCupid, Etsy, and a broad coalition of tech, media/social media, e-commerce, and other companies that peg their livelihood to the internet. The campaign aims to raise awareness regarding the Federal Communication Commission (FCC)’s proposed plan to roll back net neutrality measures later this summer.
Just two years ago, the FCC classified internet service providers as carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. The decision forced ISPs to face regulatory measures like public utilities while ensuring all ISPs treat content equally. Under President Donald Trump’s guidance, the FCC has targeted the regulation, drawing a number of large companies into a fray that may decide how online audiences view content.
The FCC’s net neutrality establishes three rules:
- Broadband providers can’t block access to legal content, applications, services or non-harmful devices.
- ISP’s can’t impair or reduce lawful internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services or non-harmful devices.
- They may not favor some internet traffic over other internet traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—no paid prioritization or fast lanes.
“The Internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet. It’s simply too important to be left without rules and without referees on the field,” said Tom Wheeler, the former chair of the Federal Communications Commission, following the FCC’s 3-2 vote in favor of Net Neutrality in 2015. “Today is a red-letter day for Internet freedom, for consumers who want to use the Internet on their terms, for innovators who want to reach consumers without the control of gatekeepers.”
Since its implementation, the vote has drawn the ire of internet companies such as AT&T, Comcast, Oracle, and Verizon. These industry leaders have cited government overreach, as well as limits to free speech and free market principles. Because net neutrality designates ISPs as “common carriers,” such as telephone companies, they are open to a host of other government regulations.
GOP leadership blasted the FCC ruling on similar grounds after it was approved in 2015.
“Overzealous government bureaucrats should keep their hands off the Internet,” Former House Speaker Rep. John Boehner (Ohio-R) said in a statement after the ruling. “More mandates and regulations on American innovation and entrepreneurship are not the answer, and that’s why Republicans will continue our efforts to stop this misguided scheme.”
Cable companies spent $44 million in lobbying efforts (including other issues besides net neutrality) during the 2015 showdown. Meanwhile, neutrality proponents like Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet Inc (formerly Google), paid $35 million in lobbying efforts that year.
Following his inauguration in January 2017, Trump enlisted the help of three net neutrality opponents to assist his FCC transition from Democratic to Republican control. On January 23, Trump appointed Ajit V. Pai to Chairman of the FCC. The former attorney for Verizon was one of two Republican votes against the 2015 decisions (Pai and Michael O’Reilly were the lone dissenters in the commission’s ruling).
Shortly after the transition, Congress overturned Obama-era internet privacy protections—a Republican bill removed regulations requiring individual permission before ISP’s could sell users data. Only a few days later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced the President’s goals for reversing net neutrality during a March 30 press briefing. A month later, Pai unveiled plans to loosen government oversight of the internet during a speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
“Two years ago, I warned that we were making a serious mistake,” said Pai. “It’s basic economics. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”
On May 18, the FCC voted 2-1 in favor of moving forward with rolling back the Obama administration’s Net Neutrality regulation. “The Restoring Internet Freedom Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” does not include specific details on how the FCC will remove Net Neutrality regulations, however, the proposal does allow for a 90-day public comment period. The FCC will stop receiving comments on July 18 but will allow a second 30-day commenting period for replies ending on August 18.
The FCC’s proposal includes three key tenants.
- Removes Title II classification from ISP’s
- Returns classification of mobile broadband internet carriers to private mobile service
- Eliminates “the catch-all internet conduct standard created by the Title II order”
Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat who previously voted for net neutrality, remained the lone dissenter during the May 18 vote.
“If you unequivocally trust that your broadband provider will always put the public interest over self-interest or the interest of their stockholders, then the ‘Destroying Internet Freedom’ [proposal] is for you,” she said after the vote.
Since FCC announced its proposal, the President has tapped two more members to serve on the commission. On June 14, Trump nominated Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, who previously served as commissioner until her term ended in 2016. Two weeks later, Trump nominated Republican Brenda Carr, a former FCC aide to chairman Pai. Carr’s selection solidifies a 5-person commission. According to the rules, no more than three members of the commission may be of the same political party; if both Carr and Rosenworcel are confirmed, Republicans would have a 3-2 majority.
In conjunction with the commission’s plan, Sen. Mike Lee (Utah-R) introduced S. 993: “the Restoring Internet Freedom Act “in early May. With nine other cosponsors, the proposed legislation would prohibit the FCC from classifying Internet Service Providers as Title II carriers ever again. The bill—Lee introduced an identical version nearly a year ago—would require legislative action to implement net neutrality in the future. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Lee, along with Senate cosponsors Ted Cruz (Texas-R) and Ron Johnson (Wisc.-R), penned an opinion piece about internet freedom in the Washington Post on May 4.
“We reject the idea that the federal government should control the Internet. That’s why we have introduced the Restoring Internet Freedom Act, which will complement Pai’s efforts to repeal the 2015 Internet takeover by preventing the FCC from issuing any similar regulations in the future.”
Meanwhile, 13 Democratic Senators signed a letter supporting the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules which were published in Tech Crunch on May 17.
“By proposing to take away the existing net neutrality protections, President Trump’s FCC is threatening to take away your ability to have free and open use of the internet. This proposal will have profound impacts on the way all of us watch movies, listen to music, do homework, talk to family, consult with a doctor, pay bills, and conduct business. Taking away these rules benefits no one except cable, telephone, and wireless broadband companies.”
The Internet Association, which represents Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix, and other internet giants, released a white paper titled “Principles to Preserve and Protect an Open Internet” on June 21. The paper outlined the “substance of the underlying rules” behind the FCC’s Net Neutrality. The paper contains “six principles and policies for preserving a free and open internet by which all proposals and potential changes to the rules will be judged.”
Principles to Preserve and Protect and Open Internet:
- Net neutrality rules preserve the success of the internet in driving economic growth.
- The FCC’s 2015 rules are working and the entire broadband internet ecosystem is thriving.
- Forecasting rules remain necessary to preserve and protect an open internet.
- Specific net neutrality rules are needed to preserve an open internet. These rules include: no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization, no unreasonable interference or disadvantaging of content by ISPs, and transparency and disclosure requirements.
- Open internet protections should apply to broadband internet access providers on a platform-neutral basis.
- Strong and effective enforcement by the FCC of net neutrality rules is critical to ensuring that the benefits of the rules are realized.
The paper also states, “a free and open internet remains vital to preserving and protecting the virtuous circle of broadband innovation that benefits edge-based innovators and entrepreneurs, businesses, ISPs, and, above all, consumers.”
It also said, “undoing the existing light touch rules will create uncertainty among edge providers, innovators, and consumers, and would threaten to unravel the most dynamic segment of our economy. Instead, policymakers should seek to preserve the current rules and ensure that they remain on a firm legal footing.”
In addition to large companies supporting net neutrality, more than 800 startups, innovators, entrepreneurs and investors from all 50 states sent a letter to Pai and the FCC.
“Without net neutrality, the incumbents who provide access to the Internet would be able to pick winners or losers in the market,” the letter reads. “They could impede traffic from our services in order to favor their own services or established competitors. Or they could impose new tolls on us, inhibiting consumer choice…Our companies should be able to compete with incumbents on the quality of our products and services, not our capacity to pay tolls to Internet access providers.”
If net neutrality gets abolished, companies like Verizon, Comcast, Oracle, and AT&T have said they can now reinvestment on infrastructure and broadband technology in communities throughout the United States.
“We also support Chairman Pai’s proposal to roll back Title II utility regulation on broadband,” Kathy Grillo, Verizon senior vice president and deputy general counsel, public policy and government affairs, said in a statement released on April 26. “Title II (or public utility regulation) is the wrong way to ensure net neutrality; it undermines investment, reduces jobs and stifles innovative new services. And by locking in current practices and players, it actually discourages the increased competition consumers are demanding.”
AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson echoed Grillo’s comments.
“AT&T continues to support the fundamental tenets of net neutrality. And we remain committed to open internet protections that are fair and equal for everyone,” he said. “The bipartisan, light-touch regulatory approach that Congress established at the internet’s inception brought American consumers unparalleled investment in broadband infrastructure, created jobs and fueled economic growth. It was illogical for the FCC in 2015 to abandon that light-touch approach and instead regulate the internet under an 80-year-old law designed to set rates for the rotary-dial-telephone era.”
While many Silicon Valley tech companies have voiced opposition to the FCC plan, the multinational computer corporation Oracle has levied support. In a letter sent to the FCC in early May, Oracle said: “the stifling open internet regulations and broadband classification that the FCC put in place in 2015 – for just one aspect of the internet ecosystem – threw out both the technological consensus and the certainty needed for jobs and investment.”
Whether or not Pai and the FCC cement their proposal, the Net Neutrality rules will remain in effect through 2018.
Members of the public have until July 17 to comment on the FCC’s net neutrality proceeding. Reply comments will then be due on August 16, unless the FCC extends the process. After that, a final FCC decision on the net neutrality rollback could take several more months.