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FCC Votes to Dismantle Net Neutrality

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

May 22, 2017

The other shoe has dropped in the raging debate over the future of net neutrality. In what the Writers Guild of America called a “war on the open internet,” the Republican majority voted along party lines to start the formal process of dismantling net neutrality rules put in place in 2015.

The move kicks off a month-long process of reviewing the rules, followed by a final vote on how the rules will look. Opponents point to this as a victory for the powerful broadband lobby, and a loss for the average consumer.

President Trump-appointed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Ajit Pai, as expected, declared this the beginning of a “new chapter” in the story about how best to guarantee a free and open internet. He stated that once again that “ISPs have strong incentives to bring next-generation networks and services to all Americans.”

Those who oppose the overturning of the Obama-era regulations were swift to condemn Pai’s reasoning, arguing that new rules could hamper new or existing streaming services, and that free speech would now be at the mercy of broadband providers.

Gigi Sohn, from the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and counselor to former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, chimed in:

Today the Trump FCC begins its dismantling of the internet rules that protect American consumers on behalf of the few huge companies that control their access to the internet. Net Neutrality rules ensure that consumers can control what they say and do online, but chairman Pai prefers to give that control instead to Comcast, AT&T, Charter and Verizon. That is an outcome that no American wants regardless of party or ideology.”

The latest vote is not a surprise, and is the culmination of the drumbeat against net neutrality that began almost as soon as Donald Trump won the election in November. After all, what would you expect from a Pai-led FCC, when some time ago he vowed to take a “weed-wacker” to net neutrality rules and replace them with company-friendly “light-touch” regulations.

Not surprisingly, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are celebrating the latest FCC move, which they claim is pro-consumer, pro-investment, and pro-innovation. Others beg to differ.

Many opponents of Pai’s actions echo the words of former FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, who said back in February 2015, when net neutrality rules went against the broadband companies,

The internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet. It’s simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee on the field.

That content providers, including Netflix, Apple, and Google, oppose the current move is not surprising. Their argument that consumers are already paying a tariff for good service, and don’t need additional ones, resonates with the pro-net neutrality crowd.

Additionally, a cautionary tale is being told by the hundreds of startups – where much of future innovation lays. They warn that without net neutrality, the ISPs who provide access to the internet would be able to pick winners or losers in the market. They could not only favor their own services over those of established competitors, but they could also impose new tolls on startups, perhaps shutting them out of the marketplace, and effectively inhibiting consumer options.

The demolition of net neutrality rules continues, as if in a parallel universe, even as President Trump is embroiled in one scandal after another in his nascent administration. But even though he is mired in controversy, the movement against net neutrality rolls on, seemingly untouched by his problems. Even talk of impeachment, though premature and mostly wishful thinking, won’t stop the anti-net neutrality juggernaut, for waiting in the wings is another Republican: Vice-president Mike Pence. And next in line after him is Republican and Speaker of the (Republican- dominated) House, Paul Ryan.

Republicans seem bent on dismantling net neutrality, despite public displays, demonstrations and digital campaigns designed to dissuade them. One can only hope that the growth of the internet, and the attendant innovation which seemed to prevail before the Democratic FCC took action in 2015, continues after the demolition of the Obama-era rules. Because it is evident that protests against the rule-changes are falling on deaf ears.

Image credit: By 3dkombinat/Shutterstock.
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