WASHINGTON (CN) – Lawmakers and protesters converged Thursday at the headquarters of the Federal Communications Commission where the Republican-controlled body voted 3-2 to kill net-neutrality rules, overturning protections that bar internet service providers from creating fast and slow lanes online.
Public outcry and dissent around the vote has been pervasive and often bipartisan. Just a day earlier, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that a six-month investigation by his office discovered at least 2 million comments submitted to the FCC on net neutrality were submitted by individuals posing as someone else.
In some cases, those individuals were long dead. At least 5,000 identity-theft victims have been flagged by the attorney general. Schneiderman said Wednesday he expects that number to grow.
“Yet the FCC is moving full steam ahead with a vote based on this corrupted process, while refusing to cooperate with an investigation,” Schneiderman said.
The FCC has garnered more than 23 million public comments since FCC Chairman Ajit Pai unveiled plans to repeal the Obama-era order at a public hearing before Thanksgiving. Pai has been championing the repeal, which is titled Restoring Internet Freedom, since his appointment by President Donald Trump in January.
FCC rules stipulate no more than three commissioners are members of the same political party, and Pai was joined in the majority by fellow Republican Commissioners Brendan Carr and Michael O’Rielly. The FCC’s two Democrats, Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, dissented.
Though Pai’s order suceeded on party lines, Clyburn noted in a statement before the vote this morning that defense of net neutrality is overwhelmingly bipartisan.
“Five Republican members of Congress went on record for calling on a halt to today’s vote,” Clyburn said. “Why is there such a bipartisan outcry? Because a large majority of Americans believe in keeping strong net neutrality rules in place. The saddest part to me is that this is the new norm at the FCC. Where the majority ignores the will of the people, where the majority stands idly by, while the people they’ve taken an oath to serve are about to lose so much.”
Rep. Mike Coffman was among a handful of Republicans who resisted the repeal.
”The preceding four chairmen of the FCC, two Republicans and two Democrats all took steps to uphold the basic principles that guaranteed a free and open internet,” the Colorado congressman said in Dec. 12 letter to Pai. “Their combined efforts have given the nation a highly successful and popular space notable for free markets, free expression and for the tremendous growth in the Internet economy.”
Coffman asked Pai to reflect on his own words from a 2015 FCC hearing when net neutrality was first introduced.
“A dispute this fundamental is not for us, five unelected individuals to decide,” Pai had said. “Instead, it should be resolved by the people’s elected representatives, those who choose the direction of government and those whom the American people can hold accountable for that choice.”
Other Republicans who criticized Thursday’s vote were Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, Rep. John Curtis of Utah, and Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington.
Clyburn also condemned the refusal to address Scheniderman’s investigation, calling it “unacceptable” that the commission refused to allow any evidence into the record that might undercut what she called the majority’s “pre-ordained outcome.”
Saying the repeal will hurt consumers, Clyburn went on to accuse the commission of “handing the keys to the internet, one of the most remarkable, empowering, enabling inventions of our lifetime, over to a handful of multibillion-dollar corporations.”
Protesters and at least one lawmaker who crowded outside the FCC Thursday echoed the commissioner’s criticism.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., promised to file a congressional order to review the FCC’s repeal, adding he would take his challenge to the Supreme Court if needed.
“Let us now ensure we stay in this fight,” Markey told protesters Thursday. “That we make them pay a political price. That we have raised, sharp, political edges on this issue and we bring this issue into the 2018 congressional races across this country. We must make people be accountable for taking away net neutrality from people across our country.”
What happens after the vote will be felt gradually, commissioner Clyburn said.
“When current protections are abandoned and rules officially in place are repealed, we’ll have a Cheshire cat version of net neutrality,” she said. “We’ll be in a world where regulatory substance fades to black. Those oh so comforting words, ‘we have every incentive, don’t worry’ – what they’ll soon have is every incentive to do their own thing.”
It is only a matter of time before the ramifications of Thursday’s decision become apparent, the commissioner warned.
“By then, when you really wake up and see what has changed, I fear it will be too late to do anything about it because there will be no agency in power to do anything about your concerns,” Clybyrn said. “[Overturning the order] ensures the FCC will never be able to fully grasp the harm it unleashed on the internet ecosystem.”
Commissioner O’Rielly, who voted in favor of the repeal, meanwhile called Pai’s order “well reasoned and soundly justified.”
“I read the comments with interest, no matter the viewpoint,” O’Rielly said. “I’m simply not persuaded heavy handed rules are needed to protect against harm.
Criticizing the “baseless fear mongering” that he said dominated the repeal process, O’Rielly insisted that the market will hold internet service providers accountable.
“The legend of a cable company trying to break the internet might make for a scary story for the children of telecom geeks, but it’s not reality,” he said.
Pai likewise said the order will improve competition.
“Now look, perhaps certain companies support saddling broadband providers with heavy-handed regulations because those rules worked to their economic advantage,” he said. “I don’t blame them. And I’m not saying some rules should be shelved, but it’s not the job of government to pick winners and losers in internet economy. Let consumers decide who prevails.”
Bob Quinn, a senior executive vice president of legislative affairs at AT&T, offered reassurances to consumers in a statement Thursday.
Users need only look at AT&T’s website for proof of the company’s commitment to an open internet, he said. Consumer protections can be made permanent without a Title II legislative solution, Quinn added.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said AT&T’s promises should be taken with a grain of salt.
“Today’s loss means that telecommunications companies will start intruding more on how people use the internet,” Stanley said. “Internet service providers will become much more aggressive in their efforts to make money off their role as online gatekeepers.”
Pai’s repeal makes it the job of the Federal Trade Commission to police ISP activity, just as it did before net neutrality was enacted in 2015.
Commissioner Carr, who voted in favor of the repeal, said the shift will strengthen online privacy protections for consumers.
“Before the FTC was stripped it off jurisdiction, they brought over 500 privacy enforcement actions against ISPs,” Carr said. “[Consumers] get those protections back.”
Commissioner Rosenworcel, the FCC’s other dissenting Democrat, disputed this.
“The FTC has authority over unfair and deceptive practices but to evade review, all any broadband provider will need to do is add terms to the fine print in its provision of service agreement,” she said. “By the time the FTC gets around to addressing [possible violations] it’s fair to assume start-ups and those wrestling with discriminatory treatment could be long gone.”
As for Schneiderman’s investigation, O’Rielly noted that the 2 million held up as fraudulent by the attorney general represent a fraction of the total.
“There were millions of comments,” he said. “Some said keep net neutrality, some said things we can’t say in public. And a few said I looked like a potato.”
The room erupted in laughter.
Pai interrupted: “I meant it in a good way.”
O’Rielly’s comments continued in this lighthearted tone.
“Whether or not comments were submitted by real people, bots or honey badgers, as the order makes clear, [the FCC doesn’t] rely on such comments,” he said. “To be clear that doesn’t mean such comments were ignored.”
Offering his endorsement of the repeal just before the vote, Pai promised that a return to Clinton administration oversight would not “destroy the internet.”
“It is not going to kill democracy,” Pai said. “It is not going to stifle free expression online. If stating these propositions alone doesn’t demonstrate their absurdity, our experience before 2016 and tomorrow will prove them so.”
While he was the target of critical tweets from Reps. Fortenberry and others, Pai took to Twitter this afternoon to celebrate “closing the digital divide.”
Rep. Coffman shot back: “Thanks for the update Chairman… however, I am still awaiting a response to my letter on net neutrality. My staff has called your office and received no answer. Wonder why people are a bit upset?”
Charter Communications, a telecom giant that very recently acquired Time Warner Cable, noted that the net-neutrality regulations relied on Title II regulations designed for 1930s telephone companies.
“We need a regulatory framework built for the 21st century,” the company said in a statement. “Our objection to Title II has never been about not wanting to provide our customers with an Open Internet. Rather we have been concerned about its overly broad and vague prohibitions as well as the potential for rate regulation.”
Now that a more “appropriate regulatory environment” has been introduced, Charter said it will begin a $25 billion investment into technology infrastructure.