Calling Net Neutrality Rules 'Heavy-Handed' and a 'Mistake,' FCC Chairman Proposes Changes

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday released a memo revealing that he has shared with other members of the commission a draft order to replace existing net neutrality rules imposed by the Obama administration. Pai also said he would release his proposed rules on Wednesday, three weeks before the FCC has scheduled a December 14 vote on the changes.

Pai positions his proposal as a return to the internet’s salad days when a Democratic president (Bill Clinton) and a Republican Congress adopted a “light-touch” approach that resulted in investment of some $1.5 trillion in building out broadband networks.

New rules adopted in 2015 by the Obama administration that treated broadband as a public utility was both “heavy-handed” and a “mistake” because it “depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation.”

Treating the internet as another utility essentially forbade internet service providers (ISPs) from differential pricing of packets transmitted over the internet backbone provided by carriers like AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), and Comcast Corp. (NASDAQ: CMCSA), among others. In other words, under current net neutrality rules, the 10 readers of your blog are entitled to the same level of transmission speed at the same price as the millions of Netflix subscribers.

FCC Chairman Pai’s proposal will rescind the internet’s utility status and “stop micromanaging” the internet by allowing ISPs 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.” Pai would also return enforcement of ISP privacy rules to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) where they were enforced prior to 2015.

With a 3-to-2 Republican majority on the commission — including the chairman — there is little question that Pai’s proposal will pass. That is not stopping some opponents from making their voices heard again.

Fight for the Future, a Boston-based non-profit organized to “ensure that the web continues to hold freedom of expression and creativity at its core,” is organizing protests at Verizon stores in several U.S. cities for December 7, a week before the FCC vote. Prior to his appointment by President Trump as chairman of the FCC, Pai was a Verizon lawyer. The group’s campaign director, Evan Greer, said:

This is the free speech fight of our generation and Internet users are pissed off and paying attention. Ajit Pai may be owned by Verizon, but he has to answer to Congress, and lawmakers have to answer to us, their constituents. The corrupt bureaucrats trying to kill net neutrality are hoping to avoid public backlash by burying the news over the Holiday weekend. We’re taking our protest from the Internet to the streets to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Under the current rules, all internet traffic is treated equally and it is not possible for an ISP to offer faster speeds in exchange for higher payments. If, as seems highly likely, the FCC adopts Pai’s proposed changes, that allows ISPs to charge more for a so-called internet fast lane. For consumers, that is likely to raise the price of services like Netflix and other heavy bandwidth users that rely on high-speed delivery to maintain high-quality streaming services.

The large ISPs like AT&T and Verizon generally support the proposed changes while content providers like Netflix and others oppose them. Most consumer groups also oppose giving ISPs the ability to offer tiered pricing.

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