WASHINGTON (CN) – Targeting an Obama-era regulation that bars internet service providers from offering slower connection speeds to different customers, the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday it will soon unveil a proposal killing net neutrality.
Ajit Pai, whom President Donald Trump appointed as chairman of the five-member FCC in January, called it a mistake this morning to impose what he called “heavy handed, utility-style regulations” on the internet.
“It’s depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation,” the commissioner said in a statement. “Today, I’ve shared with my colleagues a draft order that would abandon this failed approach and return to the longstanding consensus that served consumers well for decades.”
Pai is slated to unveil the full proposal Wednesday with a final vote scheduled for Dec. 14. It is expected to pass with ease.
Overturning net neutrality means companies that are willing to pay more can deliver content more quickly.
As previewed by the FCC, the full proposal will demand “transparency” from ISPs on their delivery of services 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 said it will also empower the Federal Trade Commission to “police ISPs, protect consumers and promote competition just as it did before 2015.”
Chairman Pai has said reversing the rules spurs innovation; his critics say it simply means large providers like Verizon – Pai’s onetime employer – could pay for the privilege of slowing down the broadcast of their video-streaming competitors, like Netflix or Amazon.
Ending net neutrality could also make it easier for companies to slow down messaging apps like Skype.
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, one of the FCC’s two Democrats, slammed Pai’s announcement Tuesday, saying the “preholiday news dump” delivered a “cornucopia full of rotten fruit, stale grains and wilted flowers topped off with a plate full of burnt turkey.”
“This most unwelcome #ThanksgivingFail is simply a giveaway to the nation’s largest communication companies, at the expense of consumers and innovation,” Clyburn wrote. “It’s not only bad public policy but is legally suspect. I hope my colleagues will see the light and put these drafts where they belong: in the trash heap.”
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a fellow Democrat, echoed Clyburn’s frustrations, saying Pai’s proposal will wipe out a “decade’s work in order to favor cable and telephone companies.”
“Our Internet economy is the envy of the world because it is open to all,” Rosenworcel added. “This proposal tears at the foundation of that openness.”
Rosenworcel described the rollback as giving providers the unfair advantage of choosing “what voices to amplify.”
“It throttles access, stalls opportunity, and censors content,” she said. “It would be a big blunder for a slim majority of the FCC to approve these rules and saddle every Internet user with the cruel consequences.”
Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Trump nominee to the FCC sworn in this past August, touted Pai’s proposal as restoring internet freedom.
“Prior to the FCC’s 2015 decision, consumers and innovators alike benefited from a free and open Internet because the FCC abided by a 20-year, bipartisan consensus that the government should not control or heavily regulate internet access,” he said.
Arguing that the internet flourished under that framework, Carr voiced full support for returning to this approach.
Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said overturning the rules will hurt online speech.
“Internet rights are civil rights … gutting net neutrality will have a devastating effect on free speech online,” Stanley said Tuesday. “Without it, gateway corporations like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T will have too much power to mess with the free flow of information.”
Ronald Newman, director of strategic initiatives at the ACLU, said the proposal could be a blow to activists, especially.
“In a world without net neutrality, activists may lose an essential platform to organize and fight for change and small organizations may never get a fair shot to grow and thrive,” Newman said.
He added that Congress must take the reins here to put the brakes on any reversal.
Sen. Ron Wyden called the plans to shred net neutrality a thinly veiled favor to large communication companies.
“You’ve got to hand it to Chairman Pai – he really gets the job done for the titans of Big Cable,” the Oregon Democrat said. “Tearing down net neutrality is the crowning achievement of the most anti-consumer FCC chair in history. Consumers, rural Americans, small businesses and pretty much everyone except Big Cable executives will lose out thanks to this terrible proposal.”
Taking a similar stance, a consumer-protection and -privacy organization called the Center for Digital Democracy said Pai’s move to overturn net neutrality would “quickly transform the internet into an expensive toll road.”
“The FCC’s decision undermines democracy, erodes privacy, and consumer protection. It will be vigorously fought in the courts,” Jeff Chester, executive director at the center, said in an email. “It will also unleash a growing protest movement that will undermine the reputation of AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and a few others. They will find that rather than helping their companies, their support of killing network neutrality will significantly harm their bottom line.”
Pai boasted meanwhile that his unveiling is more transparent than the last administration’s efforts to adopt net neutrality.
Saying the FCC under former commissioner Tom Wheeler “refused to let the American people see that plan until weeks after the [its] vote,” Pai noted that his Wednesday release is scheduled for more than three weeks before the commission’s Dec. 14 vote.”
After the final vote, changes to the rules will officially take effect in 2018.
The shake-up comes at an opportune time for Comcast, America’s largest home internet provider. Per the terms of its 2011 merger with NBC Universal, Comcast is also banned from blocking content or slowing delivery speeds until 2018.
Verizon and AT&T both lobbied against establishing net-neutrality rules. Though the latter has not returned a request for comment, Verizon on Tuesday said the end of net neutrality will keep the internet “dynamic and competitive.”
“[The 2015 rule] undermined investment and innovation and posed a significant threat to the internet’s continued ability to grow and evolve to meet consumers’ needs,” Verizon said in a statement. “Now the FCC appears poised for a much needed return to the approach that fostered to many years of internet openness and innovation.”
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., celebrated Tuesday’s announcement, saying it was a signal that Pai understands the importance of a “light touch regulatory regime.”
“The past two years of heavy-handed regulation will be only a blip on the screen of a decades-long bipartisan equilibrium that successfully supported innovation and growth,” said Walden, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Walden issued the statement with Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who chairs the Communications and Technology subcommittee.
“We also remain committed to ensuring clear, permanent net neutrality rules through the legislative process, encouraging investment in broadband buildout and closing the digital divide across America,” said Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican.
Ending net neutrality is only part of the December agenda.
Pai is also expected to reverse classification rules imposed on internet service providers. At present, ISPs are considered “common carriers” by the FCC and are treated like telephone companies. If an ISP is not considered a common carrier, it makes it far more difficult for commission to enforce any rules against slowing down access to sites or various applications. The classification was established by the FCC’s former Democratic chairman as a way to strengthen federal oversight on providers.
Wheeler touted the classification as a protection for consumers, but Pai sees the classification as a precursor for federal overreach. Pai warned that the rule, if left untouched, could open the door to government regulation of internet service.
While the rollback in December will likely be successful, it is also expected to face legal hurdles by those who want to see net neutrality rules left as is.
The proposal could also include guidance on transparency for providers, forcing them to inform consumers about their practices on service slowdowns. So far, Comcast has said it would not interfere with competitors’ streaming services.
Concerns over unfair competition will ultimately be the responsibility of another agency, the Federal Trade Commission.
The rollback would also allow Pai to make good on a promise offered in January before guests at The Free State Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank in Maryland.
Saying the “regulatory underbrush at the FCC is thick,” Pai promised drastic measures would bear changes at the commission.
“We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation,” he said.