Tech Experts Bemoan Thursday Vote to Kill Net Neutrality

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Federal Communications Commission is poised to kill net-neutrality rules on Thursday despite sharp bipartisan criticism.

Adopted in the Obama administration, net neutrality bars internet service providers, or ISPs, from offering slower connection speeds to different customers.

Thousands of public comments supporting the rules have been rolling in since FCC Chairman Ajit Pai unveiled repeal plans at a public hearing before Thanksgiving.

FCC rules stipulate that no more than three commissioners may be members of the same political party, and Pai’s repeal measure is expected garner three votes from two fellow Republicans, Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, when the commission meets again Thursday.

Democratic Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel are expected to dissent at Wednesday’s vote.

In a Monday appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Pai told the Fox News program’s host that restoration of a “free and open internet” hinges on repealing net neutrality.

One advocate of open internet argued in an interview, however, that Pai’s claims rest on a faulty premise.

“From a big-picture perspective, Chairman Pai believes that innovation is largely driven by large internet service providers, rather than by users, coders and engineers,” said Ferras Vinh, policy counsel at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology.

“Based on that philosophy,” Vinh continued, “he argues that user protections that limit ISPs from blocking, slowing or levying tolls on content represent restrictions on the internet itself. But these rules protect the fundamental digital rights of users in a market where they may have limited choices among broadband providers.”

Though Pai has blamed the Open Internet Order for hurting infrastructure investment, Vinh said the chair is relying on “flawed studies and anecdotes.”

“The most glaring problem with this claim is that it conflicts with the statements made by ISPs themselves, who have said that the implementation of net neutrality rules had no effect on infrastructure investment,” Vinh said.

As for the few, small ISPs that blamed net neutrality for hurting their bottom line, Vinh said they were never able to provide the data to back up their claims.

Free Press, one advocacy group that reviewed ISP records, found that the small providers either “expanded or upgraded their infrastructure after the Open Internet Order was implemented.”

The FCC’s Thursday vote prompted a letter from 21 self-described internet pioneers, including Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak and the inventors of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf.

Describing Pai’s proposal as “flawed and factually inaccurate,” the letter accuses the FCC of ignoring expert input to push its repeal through.

“The technically incorrect proposed order dismantles 15 years of targeted oversight from both Republican and Democratic FCC chairs, who understood the threats that Internet access providers could pose to open markets on the Internet,” the letter states

Freedman Consulting has reported that the decision to overturn net neutrality is unpopular among Americans of all political stripes. In a poll this summer, 77 percent of Americans told Freedman they support keeping net neutrality rules in place. Of that group, 73 percent were Republicans, 80 percent were Democrats and 76 percent were Independents.

The FCC also received 23 million comments on the proposal. According to the Huffington Post, 200,000 phone calls opposing net neutrality were made to Congress during the Thanksgiving week announcement. As of last week, lawmakers received 750,000 calls.  

To Pai’s point that the repeal will spur innovation, however, large internet service providers like Verizon champion the move.

Verizon senior vice president Kathy Grillo appeared in a video skit leaked to Twitter lambasting Pai’s critics during a VIP reception last week for telecom industry leaders at a Hilton in Washington.

In the video, Grillo joked that Pai was installed as a “Verizon puppet” and he was tapped to upend the open internet in a Machiavellian-like decision made more than a decade ago.

Verizon did not immediately return request for comment.

Outside FCC offices, protesters lined the streets in protest of Thursday’s scheduled vote.

Vinh with the Center for Democracy and Technology noted that the full ramifications of ending neutrality are hard to pin down.

“The fight over net neutrality is almost certainly moving to the courts and to the ballot box, and I think that ISPs will likely try to be on their best behavior to avoid providing a stronger pretext for net-neutrality protections in the future,” Vinh said. “That being said, I would not be surprised if some ISPs attempted to implement some form of paid prioritization in the near future.”

Vinh said the cost of such measures could be passed on through online subscription services, since more internet-based companies could be forced to pay added tolls that ensure access for consumers.

“The more significant cost may be one that consumers won’t be able to see on the surface,” he said. “These plans create obstacles for startups and small internet-based companies to compete with large tech companies, and many of these smaller firms may not be able to overcome these barriers. The larger cost for consumers may be the resulting lack of competition and new options.”

Thomas Kadri with Yale Law School is not optimistic about the move, either, noting that the proposal also changes ISP disclosure requirements.

A resident fellow specializing in media law, Kadri said in an interview Wednesday that the FCC has forced ISPs since 2015 to be more transparent about hidden fees and penalties hitting consumers after they exceed data caps.

This disclosure must come up long before a customer finally decides to purchase that service, Kadri explained.

But Thursday’s repeal would mean that sort of transparency vanishes.  

“He [Pai] says changes to the disclosure requirements are justified because now consumers will be informed about whats going on in the market,” Kadri said. “But a part of what the regulations will do now is relieve the burden on ISPs to disclose things like caps on data speed for providers at the point of sale.”

Previously, providers had to tell a customer facts about their services before they signed up, he said.

The repeal limits ISPs to just two options for disclosure statements, Kadri explained.

“None are consumer friendly,” he said. “First, an ISP can disclose the requirements on a publically available website. Those can run many pages long and are heavy on legalese. There’s no hope of a consumer being informed. The other option for ISPs will be to disclose the information on its website.”

Even if you accept the argument that repealing the order will boost competition, the disclosure element alone should be a cause for apprehension.

If approved, Kadri expects the repeal will face tough legal battles that could slow down any negative impact on customers.

Some of those complaints will most definitely appear at the D.C. Circuit, which Kadri noted has a history of ruling in favor of most net-neutrality matters.

“It’s a Democratic-appointed majority in that court and you could speculate that they might be more inclined to hold up [the process,]” he said.

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