After weeks of heated controversy and protests, U.S. telecom regulators are slated to repeal so-called net neutrality rules, which restrict the power of Internet service providers to influence loading speeds for specific websites or apps.
The Republican majority of the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote along party lines on Thursday to loosen Obama-era regulations for Internet providers.
The rules, put in place in 2015, ban cable and telecom companies from blocking or slowing down any websites or apps. They also prohibit broadband providers from striking special deals that would give some websites or apps “priority” over others.
In undoing the regulations, the FCC plans to reassert only one of the net neutrality requirements: that Internet providers — such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T — have to disclose to their users what exactly they do to web traffic. This would essentially shift all enforcement to the Federal Trade Commission, which polices violations rather than pre-empts them through regulations.
Broadband companies have been saying that they do not intend to block, slow down or prioritize any web traffic as a result of this repeal. Net neutrality activists, however, have been rallying widespread protests against the vote, saying the repeal will empower broadband companies to act as gatekeepers of the Internet.
If the FCC votes to repeal the rules, advocacy groups are expected to press Congress to stop the vote from taking effect under the Congressional Review Act. Consumer interest groups are also expected to pursue a lawsuit to challenge Thursday’s FCC decision, which would be the fourth related court case in a decade. (An appeal of the 2015 rules by AT&T, CenturyLink and a telecom trade group is pending at the Supreme Court.)
Large tech companies — such as Netflix, Google and Facebook — have long spoken in support of strict net neutrality rules. However, as they’ve grown in size, their advocacy has been more muted, putting on the forefront smaller competitors like Etsy and Vimeo, which argue that startups stand to lose the most on an Internet that allows for special “priority” traffic deals.
The Internet Association, which represents dozens of tech companies, in a statement called Pai’s repeal “a departure from more than a decade of broad, bipartisan consensus on the rules governing the internet” and amounted to “relying” on Internet providers “to live to their own ‘promises.’ “
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who voted against the rules in 2015, has portrayed the Obama-era regulations — which put broadband providers under the strictest-ever FCC oversight — as government “micromanaging the Internet.” As he told NPR’s Morning Edition in November, “The Internet wasn’t broken in 2015 when these heavy-handed regulations were adopted.”
Pai and broadband companies have argued that the regulations have stifled innovation and investment in broadband networks.
Editor’s Note: NPR’s legal counsel has filed comments with the FCC on behalf of the public radio system, opposing the repeal of the 2015 net neutrality rules. You can read them here.