FCC votes along party lines to end ‘net neutrality’
The Federal Communications Commission repealed the Obama-era “net neutrality” rules Thursday, giving internet service providers like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T a free hand to slow or block websites and apps as they see fit or charge more for faster speeds.
In a straight party-line vote of 3-2, the Republican-controlled FCC junked the long-time principle that said all web traffic must be treated equally. The move represents a radical departure from more than a decade of federal oversight.
The big telecommunications companies had lobbied hard to overturn the rules, contending they are heavy-handed and discourage investment in broadband networks.
“What is the FCC doing today?” asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican. “Quite simply, we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence.”
The push to eliminate the rules has touched off protests and stirred fears among consumer advocates, many web companies and ordinary Americans that cable and phone companies will be able to control what people see and do online. But the broadband industry has promised that the internet experience for the public isn’t going to change.
The FCC vote is unlikely to be the last word. Supporters of net neutrality threatened legal challenges, with New York’s attorney general vowing to lead a multi-state lawsuit. There is also some hope that Congress might overturn the FCC decision.
Mark Stanley, a spokesman for the civil liberties organization Demand Progress, said there is a “good chance” Congress could reverse it.
“The fact that Chairman Pai went through with this, a policy that is so unpopular, is somewhat shocking,” he said. “Unfortunately, not surprising.”
On Thursday, about 60 demonstrators gathered in the bitter chill in Washington to protest the FCC’s expected decision. Just before the vote, the hearing room was briefly evacuated and searched for unspecified security reasons.
The FCC subscribed to the principle of net neutrality for over a decade and enshrined it in rules adopted in 2015.
Under the new rules approved Thursday, the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world could slow down or block access to services they don’t like or happen to be in competition with. They could also charge higher fees of rivals and make them pay up for faster transmission speeds. They just have to post their policies online or tell the FCC.
Such things have happened before. In 2007, for example, the Associated Press found that Comcast was blocking or throttling some file-sharing. And AT&T blocked Skype and other internet calling services on the iPhone until 2009.
The rule change also eliminates certain federal consumer protections, bars state laws that contradict the FCC’s approach, and largely transfers oversight of internet service to another agency altogether, the Federal Trade Commission.