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FCC Chairman Reveals Plan to Gut Net Neutrality

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

April 26, 2017

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai today revealed plans that critics say will “gut” net neutrality rules in the United States. The FCC will vote on the plans in May.

Pai is a Republican, and Donald Trump’s new appointee as head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He is also a former Verizon lobbyist and his antipathy for industry regulation is well known. He has described the FCC’s existing net neutrality rules as a “mistake.”

What Is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic is treated equally by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments. It means “not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.”

It is a cornerstone of innovation and free expression on the internet. Without net neutrality the internet simply would not have been the success that it is. Without net neutrality:

  • ISPs can discriminate against rival services. For example by throttling (or even blocking) content providers such as Netflix and Facebook and Google, while giving customer’s unlimited prioritized access to their own services.
  • Innovation is stifled. Netflix, Facebook and Google can probably afford to pay ISPs to supply increased bandwidth for their services. Start-up companies, however, will be unable to do this. This will effetely leave small innovative companies dead in the water and strengthen the monopolistic stranglehold that large established companies have on the internet.
  • There is nothing to prevent ISPs from throttling or even completely censoring content on political or religious grounds.
  • The internet will become fragmented into two or more “tiers”. Less well-off customers will be targeted for special “cable-style” internet packages that only provide access to selected services. Unrestricted access to the internet will only be made available to those who can afford to pay for it. This will only deepen the digital divide and lead to increased economic and social inequality.

In other words, big money will be permitted to stamp roughshod over the interests of the common people.

Net Neutrality in the US – a Timeline

The organization tasked with protecting the interests of ordinary internet users is the FCC. This is the (theoretically) independent government organisation responsible for regulating interstate telecoms services in the US.

  • In 2010 the FCC introduced the Open Internet Order. Although this did not go far enough in the view of many net neutrally activists, it did establish a set of regulations aimed at enforcing net neutrality. This incensed ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, who spent millions of dollars on disputing the Order in court, and on lobbying the government for its repeal.
  • In January 2014 the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled the Open Internet Order 2010 invalid. It didn’t take long for ISPs to start discriminating against certain types of internet traffic.
  • The FCC came under intense to intervene in order to fulfil its job of standing for the rights internet consumers. Obama-appointed Chairman Tom Wheeler, however, was a former telecoms industry lobbyist, and showed little appetite for enforcing new net neutrality rules. This resulted in a massive grass-roots campaign by internet activists to save net neutrality.
  • In the summer 2014 the FCC was forced to extend a 60-day public consultation period after an “overwhelming surge of traffic” to its website. Over four million comments were received, which led to the FCC’s website crashing The huge majority of comments received were in support of net neutrality. Even President Obama chimed in with support for net neutrality, although he refused to intervene out of respect for the FCC as an independent agency.
  • In February 2015 the FCC bowed to pubic pressure and reclassified internet services as Title II common carrier This brought them firmly under the FCC’s control. At the same time, it introduced clear and fairly strict net neutrality rules (despite some important concessions made to ISPs’ bottom line). See here for a full run-down of these rules.
  • In January 2017 Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai Commissioner of the FCC, replacing  Tom Wheeler.
  • At 1.30pm EST on 26 April 2017 Ajit Pai made a speech in which he announced major changes to the FCC’s rules, laying out a plan to,

“…Reverse the mistake of Title II and return to the light-touch regulatory framework that served our nation so well during the Clinton administration, Bush administration, and the first six years of the Obama administration.”

What Will Happen?

Pai’s plan is to classify broadband as a “Title I information service,” meaning that rules around blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization would essentially disappear – though Pai did mention that he would seek public comment in relation to those rules.

The truth is that no-one really knows yet what will happen. Based on past statements made by Pai, however, expert observers expect that instead of the current enforceable rules, ISPs will be asked to make voluntary, non-binding commitments to the principle of net neutrally.

In theory, the Federal Trade Commission could go after ISPs that do not honor these promises, on the grounds that they have misled customers. As Nilay Patel from The Verge, and former FCC Counselor Gigi Sohn observe, however, this is unlikely to actually happen.

Companies change their terms of service all the time without the FCC becoming involved. Even it if it did intervene, the FTC can only respond in a reactive manner once damage has already been done. Furthermore, it is far from clear that under Pai’s proposals ISPs will actually be required to make any such promises!

Fighting Back

Net neutrality only exists in the US because of mass mobilisation by net neutrality activists in 2014. It is expected that today’s changes will generate even greater outcry.

This is especially true as the destruction of net neutrality comes hard on the heels of the Republican government thoroughly shafting all internet users by allowing ISPs to sell their personal web browsing histories. As Scott Byrom, Managing Director here at BestVPN.com, exclaimed,

I imagine the boards of these ISPs are doing cartwheels right now having had the best month ever, meaning Donald Trump is bang top of their Christmas card list.”

For a President whose election slogan was to “drain the swamp” of political corruption due to corporate lobbying, this move really is a doozy.

Those sitting outside the US and looking on smugly should note that around 80% of all internet traffic passes through US ISPs. In addition to this, ISPs and governments the world over are watching developments in the US with keen interest…

On a personal level, using a VPN can help defeat attempts to create a two-tiered internet. It is very had to discriminate against encrypted traffic if your ISP can’t even see it! The downside is that ISPs could simply decide to discriminate against all VPN traffic! This is (probably) unlikely to happen, however, as many businesses rely on corporate VPN networks.

Fight for the Future is leading the defense of net neutrality, and already has widespread support from the internet community. I urge readers to visit its pages to learn what they can do protect the open and democratic internet that we all know and love.

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