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AT&T, Comcast and others sketch their support for lenient — or voluntary — net neutrality rules

Tech and telecom go to war as the FCC closes its comment window on a proposed net neutrality repeal.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Speaks At American Enterprise Institute
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

The Trump administration’s attempt to scrap and replace the U.S. government’s net neutrality rules could open the door for internet providers like AT&T, Comcast* and Verizon to charge some companies for faster delivery of their web content or services.

It’s not their stated goal, but these so-called online “fast lanes” can’t be completely outlawed under the more lenient approaches to net neutrality advocated by broadband providers at the Federal Communications Commission. The agency had asked them — and their tech foes — to submit their views on the future of net neutrality by midnight on Monday. And some telecom companies even questioned whether the FCC should play the primary role in enforcing net neutrality at all.

The FCC, under its Republican leader, Chairman Ajit Pai, has sought for months to eliminate the open internet protections imposed under former President Barack Obama. Even though Pai supports the idea of net neutrality, he abhors the agency’s existing rules, which treat internet providers like old-school telephone utilities in order to stop them from blocking, slowing down or otherwise tampering with web traffic.

Internet providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon share Pai’s views — and as his agency contemplates a replacement, the telecom sector offered its support for a few, less onerous ideas that already have infuriated web companies in Silicon Valley.

One of the proposals: Telecom giants asked the FCC to consider relying on a different part of federal telecom law to safeguard the open internet. That might sound simple enough, but the portion of law they cite could open the legal door for ISPs to start charging companies like Google or Netflix for faster delivery of their content, a practice known as paid prioritization.

In their comments, AT&T, Comcast and Verizon insist that this isn’t the goal. Individually, they say the industry does not seek to engage in anything harmful or anticompetitive — and federal law probably prevents that, anyway.

Rather, they argue that fears of online fast and slow lanes are “baseless,” in the words of AT&T, which further explained that a full-on ban against paid prioritization actually makes it hard for them “to support autonomous cars, remote surgery, and a growing array of other unusually latency-sensitive applications.” Comcast similarly raised self-driving cars in its comment to the FCC.

But some of the loudest advocates for net neutrality remain unconvinced. They rebelled in an online protest when the FCC last considered a similar proposal in 2014. And on Monday, the Internet Association — a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying voice for Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter and others — reprised its vocal opposition to any federal rules that don’t fully close the door to what they describe as “tolls” on internet traffic.

“Paid prioritization would severely harm perhaps the most beneficial aspect of the Internet, the fact that as an open and neutral platform it allows any startup with a good idea to compete based on the quality of its idea and the service it provides, and to reach consumers across the nation,” the group wrote.

Another idea raised by the telecom industry could see the FCC give up net neutrality regulation entirely. Instead, it would cede the primary task of policing of internet openness to a different agency, the Federal Trade Commission.

Under that idea, ISPs might pledge not to interfere with web traffic — and if they later break their promises, the FTC could penalize them under its general power to punish companies that engage in unfair or deceptive acts and practices. Comcast, for example, said in its Monday filing with the FCC that it has already pledged not to “engage in blocking, throttling, or anticompetitive forms of paid prioritization” — and is “willing to incorporate these commitments” into its official, consumer-facing policies in the future.

But that plan also has drawn immense blowback from open internet supporters, who stress that the FTC doesn’t have the same expertise as the FCC. And these consumer groups and tech companies further fret about allowing telecom providers to decide on their own how, exactly, they would adhere to net neutrality, rather than having the U.S. government articulate clear, uniform rules.

At the moment, the FCC is far from a decision: Pai’s agency must still digest the comments it has received from all sides, take in additional public feedback in the form of replies, then decide how to proceed in its final order. Other issues merit further consideration, including how his FCC plans to treat wireless internet and specialized services.

In other words, there are still many more months more of in a debate that has already spanned 15 years, prompted regular court challenges and outlasted multiple presidents in Washington, D.C., while resulting in roughly eight million public comments landing in the FCC’s lap this year.

To that end, the one argument uniting the tech and telecom companies that filed their views with the FCC on Monday: A belief that only Congress can put an end to the intractable net neutrality war. In scores of comments, both sides called on lawmakers to draft a more lasting net neutrality solution — an aim even shared by some on Capitol Hill, but one that still seems far from lawmakers’ grasp.

“A lasting congressional solution is needed,” said USTelecom, a trade group for the industry that has sued to kill the FCC’s current rules, adding, “but, in the interim, the Commission must undo the harm caused by the underlying order.”

* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.

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