Following months of internal review and backlash from digital justice groups, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just unveiled a new set of planned regulatory rollbacks that could make net neutrality—the principle of an open and equitable internet that’s free from corporate and political meddling—history.
Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in an announcement today (November 21) that the plan was circulated to the agency’s five-person commission this morning, and that it will be released to the public tomorrow (November 22). Without sharing specifics, Pai said that, if approved, the new plan will undo several regulations that former FCC head Tom Wheeler advanced in 2015.
Ars Technica reports that one of those regulations classified the internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which defines it as a public utility and authorizes the FCC to protect it from communications corporations’ interference. Although Pai did not name Title II in his announcement, he did describe “heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the internet” as “a mistake.”
Pai also wants to shift regulatory oversight to the Federal Trade Commission, which oversaw some protections prior to 2015. In addition, he addressed the internet service providers (ISPs) that stand to benefit from weaker regulations, saying that “the FCC would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices.” The chairman, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, did not provide details on how to do this in the announcement.
Today’s moves are the latest chapter in Pai’s push for light-touch regulation on ISPs like Comcast and Verizon, his former employer. Net neutrality supporters criticize the new plan as a dangerous step towards letting ISPs control the speed, content and administration of internet service based on how much a customer can pay.
“In just two days, many of us will join friends and family in celebrating the spirit of Thanksgiving,” Democratic commissioner Mingon Clyburn—the only Black member of the commission—said in her own announcement. “But as we learned today, the FCC majority is about to deliver a cornucopia full of rotten fruit, stale grains and wilted flowers topped off with a plate full of burnt turkey.”
She added that the plan would “would dismantle net neutrality as we know it by giving the green light to our nation’s largest broadband providers to engage in anti-consumer practices, including blocking, slowing down traffic and paid prioritization of online applications and services.”
Digital justice organizations, who pushed Wheeler to implement the 2015 regulations, say that Pai’s latest move will make equitable internet access even harder for people of color.
“Net neutrality is the foundation our free and open internet, which has been an indispensable tool for Black communities and others fighting for justice and civil rights,” Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson said in an emailed statement. “Net neutrality ensures that the internet is a place for innovation and opportunity for all, allowing the voices and ideas of everyday Black folks to spread based on substance, rather than financial backing.”
“Repealing net neutrality is no small matter, especially for Latinos and people of color who already face substantial barriers in getting online, staying online and having high quality internet,” Carmen Scurato, policy and legal affairs director of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said in a statement. “Despite the obstacles, we strive to tell our stories, build businesses, learn, get jobs, express ourselves and organize online. Today, the Trump FCC is telling Latinos and other consumers that their voices will only be heard as far as their wallets can carry them, by paving the way for paid prioritization."
The New York Times reports that the commissioners will vote on the plan on December 14. Advocacy groups like Fight for the Future and the Center for Media Justice have already organized online campaigns and mass demonstrations to protest the plan ahead of the vote. Jai did not mention if the FCC will open its site to public comment on the new plan.
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” explored the importance of net neutrality in the 2014 segment below, which crashed the FCC’s public comments page with nearly 45,000 pro-net neutrality submissions.