Against Open Internet Advocates’ Wishes, FCC Votes to Review Net Neutrality Rules

By Sameer Rao May 19, 2017

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 2-1 yesterday (May 18) to affirm chairman Ajit Pai‘s previous Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, "Restoring Internet Freedom," and review current Title II regulations on internet service providers (ISPs). Like the notice that preceded it, the vote prompted criticism from advocacy groups who feel the current rules protect the digital freedom of marginalized communities from corporate recklessness. 

As The Verge reports, the FCC voted to open debate on two components: the internet’s 2015 classification under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which regards the internet as a public utility and authorizes the FCC to stop ISPs like Comcast or Verizon from impeding web traffic or creating sped-up "fast lanes" for customers who can afford to pay more for it; and whether the FCC should establish any regulatory action for "net neutrality," or the principle of an open and equitable internet. The vote does not immediately roll back Title II regulations, but it did arise from Pai (a former Verizon lawyer) and fellow Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly‘s view that such rules limit ISPs’ independence and discourage infrastructure development. From Pai’s oral statement

The internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We were not living in a digital dystopia. Nonetheless, the FCC that year succumbed to pressure from the White House and changed course. Even though the FCC couldn’t find any evidence of market failure, it turned its back on almost two decades of success. It imposed upon all internet service providers, big and small, the heavy-handed regulatory framework designed during the Roosevelt Administration to micromanage the AT&T telephone monopoly. These utility-style regulations, known as "Title II," were and are like the proverbial sledgehammer being wielded against the flea—except that here, there was no flea.

Mignon Clyburn, the commission’s only Democrat and Black woman, criticized the notice in her dissent as overriding the only consumer protections in place: 

Innovation has, and will continue. We have moved from copper to glass, and from circuitswitching to packet-switching. But using interpretive gymnastics to shirk competition and consumer protection responsibilities is the antithesis of putting #ConsumersFirst. We should not let broadband providers define the rules of engagement when Congress has clearly entrusted the Commission with that responsibility.

Digital advocacy groups denounced Pai’s notice last month, accusing the chairman of using a neoliberal approach that threatens net neutrality and free speech for disadvantaged communities, especially impoverished ones of color that need an open internet to tell their stories. Some of those organizations staged a rally outside of the FCC’s Washington D.C. headquarters yesterday, where their leaders spoke about the importance of an open internet.

"People of color depend on the internet to help organize a better future for our communities, and we cannot let it be a place where corporations get to decide what is in our best interest," Center for Media Justice organizer Chinyere Tutashinda said at yesterday’s rally, per the center’s press release. "The chairman’s plan to repeal net neutrality is simply about making his big telecom friends the most money, it is not about protecting the voices of internet users."

The National Hispanic Media Coalition, which also helped organize the action, issued the following statement from Carmen Scurato, its director of policy and legal affairs:

The FCC vote today shirks the agency’s obligations as a consumer watchdog in ways that threaten to widen the digital divide by giving internet service providers more power to restrict access to the internet. The cost of internet access is already a major reason why half of Latino households are offline and remain disconnected. The FCC needs to find ways to expand access, not give a free pass to corporations who are more motivated by increasing profit margins than providing the utility that American families need to thrive in the 21st century.

The FCC is soliciting comments on the vote via for the next 90 days.