The Federal Communications Commission has officially begun undoing net neutrality rules the agency passed two years ago.
The FCC voted 2-1, along political party lines Thursday, to begin a rule-making process to replace the Open Internet order, or net neutrality rules, adopted in 2015 by the agency, then headed by Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat.
Those original rules included provisions preventing Internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or throttling legal content users sought to access, as well as preventing ISPs from accepting payment to prioritize some data.
The 2015 rules derive the FCC enforcement power from regulations formulated for telephone companies within The Communications Act of 1934. Republicans have called such regulation as heavy-handed and burdensome for ISPs.
"Today, we propose to repeal utility-style regulation of the Internet. We propose to return to the Clinton-era light-touch framework that has proven to be successful," said Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed to head the FCC in January by President Trump. "And we propose to put technologists and engineers, rather than lawyers and accountants, at the center of the online world. The evidence so far strongly suggests that this is the right way to go."
Pai and Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, also a Republican, voted to adopt the measure, while Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, voted against it. All three basically reversed roles from the 2015 vote in which Democrats, including Wheeler and then-Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, passed regulations supported by President Obama. President Trump has opposed the 2015 rules.
For Internet users devoted to streaming media, Thursday's move won't result in an immediate change, though there's likely to be plenty of noise about it online and possibly on the airwaves. Thursday's passage starts a three-month public comment period. Initial comments must be filed within 60 days, July 17, with another 30 days for replies to those by Aug. 16. HBO host John Oliver has been urging viewers to comment on the FCC's website in support of the existing rules. His exhortations may be behind a surge in comments from 30,000 on May 8 to over 1.6 million this week.
The proposed rules will consider whether to keep or modify the rules prohibiting ISPs from blocking and throttling content or from prioritizing some content over other content, possibly for payment, and the elimination of a Internet conduct standard meant to prevent ISPs from unreasonable interference with consumer's access to destinations on the Net.
Wheeler, Obama and Democrats argued the strong enforcement basis of the 2015 rules gave the agency what it needed to ensure fair service for consumers. Revocation of the current rules and replacement with less stringent protections, Clyburn said Thursday, would deeply damage the ability of the FCC to be a champion of consumers and competition in the 21st century."
The new order "contains a hollow theory of trickle-down Internet economics, suggesting that if we just remove enough regulations from your broadband provider, they will automatically improve your service, pass along discounts from those speculative savings, deploy more infrastructure with haste and treat edge providers fairly," she said.
Comcast and Charter Communications, the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 broadband providers, hailed the FCC's move in statements released after the vote. "We firmly believe that forcing outdated public utility regulation on dynamic internet networks is both misguided and harmful for future expansion, innovation and availability of this important technology," said former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who is now president and CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, in a statement.
Meanwhile, proponents of the current rules staged a protest outside the FCC pledging to garner public support against their revocation. "The 2015 rules are working, and the internet industry remains opposed to any changes to FCC regulations governing net neutrality," said Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, a trade group that includes as members Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix. "ISPs should not be able to use their position as gatekeepers to prioritize their own content over others."
Congress could eventually have a say on the issue. At about the same time the FCC was considering the issue, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., called for Congress to pass legislation "to protect the internet."
Thune, who is the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, urged colleagues "to begin bipartisan work on such legislation without any further delay. Innovation and job creation should no longer take a backseat to partisan point-scoring," he said. "It is time for Congress to finally settle this matter."