FCC’s Pai circulates draft order to overturn net neutrality rules

Even as telco-centric groups applauded the proposal, it is being met with a mix of protests among his fellow commissioners and proconsumer groups.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to overturn the Title II classification for the current net neutrality rules during its upcoming Dec. 14 monthly meeting has incited renewed debate about how to regulate broadband and internet services. 

During the meeting, Pai will present a repeal for the program, put in place by his predecessor Tom Wheeler, that prevent paid content prioritization and other schemes that would create "fast" and "slow" lanes for internet content.

He circulated a Report and Order on Restoring Internet Freedom, which would reverse the agency’s 2015 decision to regulate broadband internet access service under Title II of the Communications Act.

Pai argued in a statement that the light-touch regulatory mentality drove greater investment in the overall telecom industry.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
Ajit Pai

“For almost 20 years, the internet thrived under the light-touch regulatory approach established by President Clinton and a Republican Congress,” Pai said in a statement. “This bipartisan framework led the private sector to invest $1.5 trillion building communications networks throughout the United States. And it gave us an internet economy that became the envy of the world.”

RELATED: Telco broadband investment dipped to $76B in 2016 due to net neutrality rules, says USTelecom

Pai added that the 2015 net neutrality rules put in place under his predecessor Chairman Tom Wheeler have driven large ISPs like AT&T and Verizon to cool investments.

“But in 2015, the prior FCC bowed to pressure from President Obama,” Pai said. “On a party-line vote, it imposed heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the internet. That decision was a mistake. It’s depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation.”

Not surprisingly, traditional telcos like Verizon expressed support for Pai’s net neutrality proposal.

“At Verizon, we continue to strongly support net neutrality and the open internet,” said Kathy Grillo, Verizon senior vice president and deputy general counsel for public policy and government affairs, in a statement. “Our company operates in virtually every segment of the internet. We continue to believe that users should be able to access the internet when, where, and how they choose, and our customers will continue to do so. We are also confident that the FCC will reinstate a framework that protects consumers’ access to the open internet, without forcing them to bear the heavy costs from unnecessary regulation that chases away investment and chills innovation.”

Driving transparency

A key focus that Pai hopes to bring out with his net neutrality proposal is greater transparency.

To that end, he will publicly release the Proposal to Restore Internet Freedom tomorrow, three weeks in advance of the Commission’s Dec. 14 vote.

Pai said that under his proposed plan, the “FCC would simply require Internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate.”

At the same time, he will put the Federal Trade Commission in charge overseeing ISPs actions.

“Additionally, as a result of my proposal, the Federal Trade Commission will once again be able to police ISPs, protect consumers, and promote competition, just as it did before 2015,” Pai said. “Notably, my proposal will put the federal government’s most experienced privacy cop, the FTC, back on the beat to protect consumers’ online privacy.”

Mixed responses

Even as telco-centric groups applauded the proposal, it is being met with a mix of protests among his fellow commissioners and proconsumer groups.

Like the response to Pai’s proposals to revise copper retirement rules and Lifeline services, FCC commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel bashed the move.

Clyburn said in a statement that the proposal, which comes only two days before Thanksgiving, was an unwelcome present.

FCC Commissioner Clyburn Image: FCC
Mignon Clyburn

“In just two days, many of us will join friends and family in celebrating the spirit of Thanksgiving,” Clyburn said in a statement. “But as we learned today, the FCC majority is about to deliver a cornucopia full of rotten fruit, stale grains, and wilted flowers topped off with a plate full of burnt turkey. Their Destroying Internet Freedom Order would dismantle net neutrality as we know it by giving the green light to our nation’s largest broadband providers to engage in anti-consumer practices, including blocking, slowing down traffic, and paid prioritization of online applications and services.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel agreed, adding that the proposal will inhibit the openness of the internet consumers enjoy today.

“Our internet economy is the envy of the world because it is open to all,” Rosenworcel said. “This proposal tears at the foundation of that openness. It hands broadband providers the power to decide what voices to amplify, which sites we can visit, what connections we can make, and what communities we create. It throttles access, stalls opportunity, and censors content. It would be a big blunder for a slim majority of the FCC to approve these rules and saddle every Internet user with the cruel consequences.”

Industry groups like USTelecom and Incompas also remain divided on the net neutrality issue.

Jonathan Spalter, CEO of USTelecom, which represents large telcos such as AT&T and Verizon, said that removing Title II regulations will drive new broadband investments by the largest ISPs.

“Today’s action will provide tremendous opportunity for American broadband consumers, no matter where they live,” Spalter said. “The removal of antiquated, restrictive regulations will pave the way for broadband network investment, expansion and upgrades. FCC Chairman Pai’s proposal to restore the smart, common-sense, bipartisan policies that allowed the internet to flourish is a critical step toward closing the digital divide and ensuring net neutrality protections for all.”

However, Incompas said that overturning the rules will basically put all the power over how consumers access the internet back into the hands of a few powerful companies.

A recent net neutrality poll by INCOMPAS and IMGE Insights found that over 70% Americans, Republican and Democrats, say the internet has gotten better under the current rules.

"The FCC knows they have a terrible legal hand but remain willing to plunge an open internet, the engine of our economy, into chaos,” said Chip Pickering, CEO of Incompas, in a statement. “Comcast and AT&T have the means, motive and history of doing harm to an open internet. Ending net neutrality could cost consumers hundreds of millions in new fees, and should be deeply troubling for all Americans.”