The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to eliminate the U.S. government’s net neutrality rules, opening the door for telecom giants like AT&T, Charter, Comcast* and Verizon to block or slow down access to websites and prioritize their own music, movies and other content offerings over their competitors.
Under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai — and with only the backing of the agency’s Republican members — the repeal newly frees telecom companies from federal regulation, unravels a signature accomplishment of the Obama administration and shifts the responsibility of overseeing the web to another federal agency that some critics see as too weak to be effective.
In practice, it means the U.S. government no longer will have rules on its books that require internet providers to treat all web traffic equally. The likes of AT&T and Verizon will be limited in some ways — they can face penalties if they try to undermine their rivals, for example — but they won’t be subject to preemptive, bright-line restrictions on how they manage their networks.
Meanwhile, the FCC’s repeal will open the door for broadband providers to charge third parties, like tech giants, for faster delivery of their web content. Even though the FCC will require telecom companies to be transparent about these arrangements, critics contend these so-called “fast lanes” will limit consumers’ choice in services like video streaming — and harm startups that simply can’t afford to pay such tolls to ISPs.
To be sure, the FCC’s vote Thursday is the beginning of the fight, not the end. Soon, a wide array of opponents, including left-leaning consumer advocates and their Silicon Valley allies, are expected to sue the agency in response. They also plan to press the U.S. Congress to enact a new net neutrality law.
For now, though, the vote for repeal is a victory for Pai, his fellow Republicans on the FCC and regulation-wary telecom giants. They each argue that they support net neutrality but feel the rules adopted under former President Barack Obama are so heavy handed that they crimped investment, stalling major upgrades to high-speed internet and other innovations.
And Pai, before the vote was final, sought to swat away his critics. “Following today’s vote,” he began, “Americans will still be able to access the websites they want to visit. They will still be able to enjoy the services they want to enjoy. There will still be cops on the beat guarding a free and open Internet.”
The two Democrats on the FCC — Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel — voted to keep the rules in place. And they excoriated Pai in speeches delivered minutes before the agency dismantled its open internet protections.
“I dissent from this rash decision to roll back net neutrality rules,” Rosenworcel began. “I dissent from the corrupt process that has brought us to this point. And I dissent from the contempt this agency has shown our citizens in pursuing this path today.”
In truth, the U.S. government’s net neutrality rules unofficially died last November, at the moment Trump won the White House. Republicans never liked the utility-style regulations adopted by the Democrat-dominated FCC in 2015, and Pai — then serving as a commissioner — voted against it.
So when Trump tapped Pai to lead the telecom agency at the beginning of his presidency, net neutrality supporters and opponents alike recognized a repeal would follow. The official rulemaking process kicked off at the FCC in May, and it quickly became clear that the telecom agency’s new GOP leader had hoped to limit the FCC’s future role in heavily policing the open internet.
Pai’s plans sparked intense backlash: Web users bombarded the FCC with more than 21 million comments over the course of the roughly seven-month debate. They were spurred on by a coterie of left-leaning consumer groups, like Free Press, Demand Progress and Fight for the Future, which organized a full “day of action” in an attempt to save net neutrality over the summer. Tech giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google participated in the rally, directing their customers and users to the FCC’s portal for public submissions.
Nevertheless, Pai proceeded with his repeal.
Specifically, the order the agency adopted today eliminates utility-style regulation of internet providers. It also strips from the rulebooks any requirement that they refrain from blocking or throttling web traffic.
Telecom giants still must publish information about their network practices — and if they prioritize their content over competitors, for example, they have to tell consumers. Otherwise, companies that deceive their consumers or seek to stamp out their rivals could face penalties from the Federal Trade Commission.
Taken together, it’s a dramatic departure from the Obama administration’s efforts to police net neutrality. The FTC is much more limited in what it can investigate and how it fines companies. And it’s the very sort of hands-off approach that AT&T, Verizon and other broadband providers have spent years trying to secure in the nation’s capital — through seemingly endless court challenges and millions of dollars in lobbying.
And as the FCC’s vote approached, telecom companies insisted they had no plans to change their business practices. Comcast, for one, stressed it would not block or throttle content and has "no plans" to enter into paid prioritization agreements.
“This is not the end of net neutrality,” said David Cohen, its top government-focused executive, in a blog post. “Despite repeated distortions and biased information, as well as misguided, inaccurate attacks from detractors, our internet service is not going to change.”
Yet the FCC left Silicon Valley seething. The Internet Association — a Washington, D.C.-based trade group for Facebook, Google and other tech giants — sharply criticized the telecom agency for eliminating the Obama-era rules.
“Relying on ISPs to live up to their own ‘promises’ is not net neutrality and is bad for consumers,” said Michael Beckerman, the group’s president. “The fight isn’t over. [The] Internet Association is currently weighing our legal options in a lawsuit against today’s Order, and remains open to Congress enshrining strong, enforceable net neutrality protections into law.”
Neither IA nor other organizations officially committed to a lawsuit, but one is practically guaranteed: After all, both sides have warred for decades in court over the FCC’s authorities. And it was a legal loss to telecom giants that led the Obama administration to write its tough 2015 rules — the very order Pai scrapped — in the first place.
This time, net neutrality advocates are likely to charge that Pai’s FCC made an arbitrary and capricious decision to undo the work of its predecessors — and failed to take stock of the millions of Americans who urged the agency to reconsider its repeal.
“What is striking and in keeping with the new norm, despite the millions of comments, letters, and calls received, this order cites not even one,” Clyburn said before the vote. “That speaks volumes about the direction the current majority is heading, the FCC is heading. And that speaks volumes about just who is being heard at the FCC.”
For his part, Pai maintained from the start that comment quality, not quantity, mattered most to him. And both Democrats and Republicans, publicly and privately, acknowledged that broad swaths of the public submissions the FCC received are fraudulent, with millions of comments submitted in bulk by lobbying groups and still more bearing fake names.
But the FCC under Pai repeatedly resisted calls to study the record or provide information about fake comments to state attorneys general, who are investigating the matter. Calls to delay the vote to 2018 — and hold public hearings — never gained much traction.
“The fight to save the internet has just begun,” said Chip Pickering, the leader of Incompas, a D.C.-based trade group that represents companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google. “We will fight in the courts, Congress and in every corner of our country until a free and open internet is returned to the American people.”
* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.