The Federal Communications Commission repealed the Obama-era “net neutrality” rules Thursday, giving internet service providers like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T a free hand to slow or block websites and apps as they see fit or charge more for faster speeds.
In a straight party-line vote of 3-2, the Republican-controlled FCC junked the long-time principle that said all web traffic must be treated equally. The move represents a radical departure from a decade of federal oversight.
The broadband industry has promised that the internet experience for the public isn’t going to change.
But the move toward eliminating the rules has touched off protests in recent months, with ordinary Americans worried that cable and phone companies would now be able to control what people see and do online. On Thursday, about 60 protesters gathered in the bitter chill in Washington to protest the FCC’s expected decision.
The telecommunications companies lobbied hard to overturn the rules, contending they are heavy-handed and are discouraging investment in broadband networks.
“What is the FCC doing today?” asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican. “Quite simply, we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence.”
The FCC vote is unlikely to be the last word. Opponents of the move plan legal challenges, and some hope to make it an issue in the 2018 midterm elections. There is also some hope that Congress might overturn the FCC decision.
Mark Stanley, a spokesman for the civil liberties organization Demand Progress, said there is a “good chance” Congress could reverse it.
“The fact that Chairman Pai went through with this, a policy that is so unpopular, is somewhat shocking,” he said. “Unfortunately, not surprising.”
Under the new rules, the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world will be free to block rival apps, slow down competing services or offer faster speeds to companies that pay up. They just have to post their policies online or tell the FCC.
The change also eliminates certain federal consumer protections, bars state laws that contradict the FCC’s approach, and largely transfers oversight of internet service to another agency altogether, the Federal Trade Commission.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat appointed by President Barack Obama, lambasted the “preordained outcome” of the vote that she said hurts small and large businesses and ordinary people. She said the end of net neutrality hands over the keys to the internet to a “handful of multibillion-dollar corporations.”
With their vote, she added, the FCC’s Republican commissioners are abandoning the pledge they took to make a rapid, efficient communications service available to all people in the U.S., without discrimination.
But Michael O’Rielly, a Republican commissioner appointed by Obama, called the FCC’s approach a “well-reasoned and soundly justified order.”
The internet, he said, “has functioned without net neutrality rules for far longer than it has without them.” The decision “will not break the internet.”
Here’s a look at what the developments mean for consumers and companies:WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?
Net neutrality is the principle that internet providers treat all web traffic equally, and it’s pretty much how the internet has worked since its creation. But regulators, consumer advocates and internet companies were concerned about what broadband companies could do with their power as the pathway to the internet – blocking or slowing down apps that rival their own services, for example.WHAT DID THE GOVERNMENT DO ABOUT IT?
The FCC in 2015 approved rules, on a party-line vote, that made sure cable and phone companies don’t manipulate traffic. With them in place, a provider such as Comcast can’t charge Netflix for a faster path to its customers, or block it or slow it down.
The net neutrality rules gave the FCC power to go after companies for business practices that weren’t explicitly banned as well. For example, the Obama FCC said that “zero rating” practices by AT&T violated net neutrality. The telecom giant exempted its own video app from cellphone data caps, which would save some consumers money, and said video rivals could pay for the same treatment. Under current chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC spiked the effort to go after AT&T, even before it began rolling out a plan to undo the net neutrality rules entirely.
A federal appeals court upheld the rules in 2016 after broadband providers sued.WHAT TELCOS WANT
Big telecom companies hate the stricter regulation that comes with the net neutrality rules and have fought them fiercely in court. They say the regulations can undermine investment in broadband and introduced uncertainty about what were acceptable business practices. There were concerns about potential price regulation, even though the FCC had said it won’t set prices for consumer internet service.WHAT SILICON VALLEY WANTS
Internet companies such as Google have strongly backed net neutrality, but many tech firms have been more muted in their activism this year. Netflix, which had been vocal in support of the rules in 2015, said in January that weaker net neutrality wouldn’t hurt it because it’s now too popular with users for broadband providers to interfere.WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Although the FCC’s two Democrats said they will oppose the proposal, the repeal is likely to prevail as Republicans dominate 3-2. The vote for net neutrality in 2015 was also along party lines, but Democrats dominated then.
In the long run, net-neutrality advocates say undoing these rules makes it harder for the government to crack down on internet providers who act against consumer interests and will harm innovation. Those who criticize the rules say undoing them is good for investment in broadband networks.
But advocates aren’t sitting still. Some groups plan lawsuits to challenge the FCC’s move, and Democrats – energized by public protests in support of net neutrality – think it might be a winning political issue for them in 2018 congressional elections.
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