FCC Repeals 'Net Neutrality' Rules For Internet Providers

Dec 14, 2017
Originally published on December 14, 2017 9:45 pm

Updated at 3:27 p.m. ET

After a brief security evacuation, U.S. telecom regulators have voted to repeal so-called net neutrality rules, which restrict the power of Internet service providers to influence loading speeds for specific websites or apps.

After weeks of heated controversy and protests, the Republican majority of the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines on Thursday to loosen Obama-era regulations for Internet providers.

The rules, put in place in 2015, banned cable and telecom companies from blocking or slowing down any websites or apps. They also prohibited broadband providers from striking special deals that would give some websites or apps "priority" over others.

The FCC's dramatic course reversal in favor of Internet service providers has propelled the once-wonky issue of net neutrality into the mainstream, turning it into an increasingly political matter. Advocacy groups are expected to press Congress to stop the FCC's vote from taking effect under the Congressional Review Act.

The FCC's decision is otherwise slated to go into effect in the coming weeks, after a review by the Office of Management and Budget.

Before the FCC took the net neutrality vote, the meeting room was briefly evacuated over a security threat, which has not been officially explained. Livestreams from inside the empty rooms showed security guards with what appeared to be bomb-sniffing dogs.

What happens now

In undoing the regulations, the FCC has reasserted one of the net neutrality requirements: that Internet providers — such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T — disclose to their users what exactly they do to web traffic. This will 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, arguing that it's not in their interest to aggravate their users by messing with their Internet traffic.

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, for example allowing them to prioritize their own video-streaming services.

Consumer interest groups have told NPR that they are also planning to pursue a lawsuit challenging 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.)

Additional legal challenges are pending from several state attorneys general, including from Washington and New York states. They have argued, among other things, that the FCC rushed the procedure and ignored a massive outpouring of millions of public comments.

The commenting process has been mired in controversy after several reviews found a number of the comments to be fraudulent or duplicative, using fake names, fake addresses and even names of dead people.

The debate

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." He and broadband companies have argued that the regulations have stifled innovation and investment in broadband networks.

"What is responsible for the phenomenal development of the Internet? Certainly wasn't heavy-handed government regulation," Pai said on Thursday, adding his oft-repeated line that "there was no problem to solve. The Internet wasn't broken in 2015, we were not living in some digital dystopia. ... It is time for us to bring faster, better and cheaper Internet access to all Americans."

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 become 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.

"I have heard from innovators, worried that we are standing up a 'mother-may-I' regime, where the broadband provider becomes arbiter of acceptable online business models," Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in a blistering dissent on Thursday, adding, "When the current 2015 net neutrality rules are laid to waste, we may be left with no single authority with the power to protect consumers."

In a statement, the Internet Association, which represents dozens of tech companies, 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.' "

Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly called the concerns of potential net neutrality violations "guilt by imagination" and "baseless fear-mongering." He said, "I'm simply not persuaded that heavy-handed rules are needed to protect from hypothetical harm."

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.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The net neutrality rules of the Obama era have been revoked. Net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers, or ISPs, should not favor certain content or websites over others. By a vote of 3 to 2, the Federal Communications Commission voted today to roll back net neutrality rules that were issued in 2015. That vote was long expected.

Over the last few months, net neutrality advocates staged protests and sent millions of comments to the FCC. Many worry that the rollback will allow ISPs like Comcast or AT&T to charge more to access certain websites or to block some sites altogether. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai dismissed those concerns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AJIT PAI: It is not going to end the Internet as we know it. It is not going to kill democracy. It is not going to stifle free expression online. If stating these propositions alone doesn't demonstrate their absurdity, our Internet experience before 2015 and our internet experience tomorrow once this order passes will prove them so.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Today is just the latest development in a long debate over whether and how to regulate Internet service providers. NPR's Alina Selyukh has covered net neutrality for years, and she is with us now. Alina, just remind us how this debate got started.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Fundamentally, this dispute over how to regulate Internet providers goes back to the era of dial-up Internet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Well, there's a revolution going on in rec rooms, offices and classrooms around the world.

SELYUKH: The Internet was very different. This is - I mean, we're talking late-'90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Passing on cooking tips and gossip night and day through a computer network called Internet.

SELYUKH: And the FCC just started figuring out what to do with these new companies. Should they be regulated like telephone companies that have been around for years?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM KENNARD: Finally as old industry boundaries fade away, the FCC itself must change.

SELYUKH: And in 1999, Democratic FCC chairman under President Clinton, he says, let's go for a light-touch approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNARD: Simply put, the top-down regulatory model for the FCC is as out of date for the 21st century as the rotary phone.

SELYUKH: And we will not, for now, treat broadband like the old telephone.

MCEVERS: OK, so then this debate goes into the 2000s and around this time, you know, the Internet's changing a lot. And the ISPs really start to push their boundaries, right?

SELYUKH: I think everybody's trying to figure out how they can benefit from what's happening on the Internet. And there's definitely a couple of instances when the internet providers get accused of essentially violating net neutrality principles by the advocates. There's a case of Comcast and BitTorrent traffic, AT&T and FaceTime app. And the FCC just keeps trying to get involved, write some kind of rules or punish bad behavior. And the court keeps tossing out whatever they did. So the FCC keeps searching for solid legal ground to write net neutrality rules into law.

MCEVERS: All right, so it's 2014 at this point. And this seems to be the year when people start to, like, hear about net neutrality and start to care about it, right?

SELYUKH: You know, if you listen to news reports from the years earlier, net neutrality is this, like, extremely painful topic that poor news reporters were just completely struggling to explain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIA MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Now to net neutrality, which has a lot of us here scratching our heads.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Net neutrality. Now, that's a phrase that some people may not have heard of.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: About net neutrality. Now, it's a very boring term for an important subject.

SELYUKH: And then you get this new metaphor that starts circulating of, quote-unquote, "fast lanes," on the Internet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIA MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The best way to understand net neutrality is to think of the Internet as a sort of congested superhighway.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, if you think of the Internet like a highway...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Express lanes on the information superhighway.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: And leaving the little guys stuck in the slow lane or never getting off the ground.

SELYUKH: And all this catches fire among these folks who'd never heard of net neutrality, never cared about net neutrality, especially when comedian John Oliver does his 13-minute rant about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")

JOHN OLIVER: Our top story tonight concerns the Internet, AKA the electronic cat database.

MCEVERS: This is on his HBO show "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")

OLIVER: Our government looks set to end net neutrality. And...

SELYUKH: He explains this whole issue in a very entertaining way and encourages everyone to send comments directly to the FCC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")

OLIVER: We need you to get out there and for once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction.

SELYUKH: And this rant sets off a new wave of protests. People are sitting in front of the FCC chairman's house. They're saying no fast lanes on the Internet. And then President Obama weighs in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Hi, everybody. Ever since the Internet was created...

SELYUKH: What Obama calls for is the strictest-possible rules for Internet service providers. And he essentially says classify them as utilities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: In plain English, I'm asking them to recognize that for most Americans, the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life.

SELYUKH: The FCC is supposed to be an independent agency. But there's this huge pressure coming from the public and now from the president. So the agency ends up completely rewriting their approach to net neutrality. They put in place these rules that essentially put really strict oversight over ISPs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Today, history is being made by a majority of this commission.

SELYUKH: The FCC's vote lands along party lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: All in favor, say aye.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Aye.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Opposed.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No.

SELYUKH: The three Democrats vote in favor. There's this picture of the three of them wearing blue. They're triumphantly holding their hands. It was kind of an epic moment for the advocacy groups that have been fighting for these strict rules for years.

MCEVERS: Right. So they vote 3 to 2 and one of those two dissenters - right? - is Ajit Pai, who's now...

SELYUKH: The FCC chairman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAI: This order imposes intrusive government regulations that won't work to solve a problem that doesn't exist using legal authority the FCC doesn't have. Accordingly, I dissent.

SELYUKH: He is a free-market Republican and he was saying it then and he's saying it now. He's saying, the rules overstepped authority, and it's essentially government meddling with the Internet to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAI: I don't know whether this plan will be vacated by a court, reversed by Congress or overturned by a future commission. But I do believe its days are numbered.

SELYUKH: Than President Trump got elected and essentially promoted Pai. So he's now the FCC chairman and he oversees a Republican majority 3 to 2. And now he has the power to actually act on it, which is exactly what he did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAI: With that, we will call the vote. Commissioner Clyburn.

MIGNON CLYBURN: I dissent.

PAI: Commissioner O'Rielly.

MICHAEL O'RIELLY: Aye.

PAI: Commissioner Carr.

BRENDAN CARR: Aye.

PAI: Commissioner Rosenworcel.

JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: I dissent.

PAI: The chair votes aye. The item is adopted with editorial privileges granted as requested.

MCEVERS: So now we are finally to today. What's next?

SELYUKH: I think next, the advocates, net neutrality advocates, are saying they are planning to push Congress for a special vote that might block this FCC decision from going into effect to begin with. A few groups like the ACLU, Public Knowledge are talking about a lawsuit. But, of course, the question that everyone keeps asking me is, what does this mean for me tomorrow for my Internet connection? And the honest answer is we don't really know. The net neutrality advocates are saying we're basically in the territory where people are being asked to trust their Internet service provider to play fair with their competitors, to protect the little startups. The broadband providers for their part are saying they have no interest in aggravating their users by meddling with their Internet traffic. But the law that was requiring them not to do that is going away.

MCEVERS: NPR's Alina Selyukh, thank you so much.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.