The new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has ditched an investigation into “sponsored data” plans by mobile operators. It may be the first of many steps to loosen the FCC’s enforcement of net neutrality rules.
Net neutrality has been at the heart of a long-running debate over the FCC’s powers to regulate internet providers. An initial legal argument about whether the FCC’s classification of broadband allowed it to enforce net neutrality was briefly halted when the FCC reclassified it. That quickly led to a new argument about whether the FCC had the power to make that reclassification. There’s also ongoing political debate about the possibility of legislation to overturn the FCC decisions, something that looks more likely now both Congress and the White House are in Republican control.
While the existing rules stay in place, there’s still the question of how vigorously they are enforced. That became a big issue with the appointment of Republican-leaning Ajit Pai as chairman, part of a series of changes that now give Republican-leaning commissioners a 2-1 majority.
Pai, a former Verizon Communications lawyer, has spoken out in the past against FCC regulation of net neutrality. He’s now announced the FCC is closing down an investigation into zero-rating practices. That’s a measure by which mobile operators exclude some content from data caps, something critics say breaches the net neutrality principle of treating all data equally.
One high profile example is AT&T’s “Data-Free TV”, which means that customers can watch DirectTV content via mobile data without it counting towards a monthly cap.
It’s something of a practicality vs principle debate. Pai’s argument is that such programs benefit consumers because they increase their ability to access content on the move without added expense. Critics counter that such programs effectively make other video content more expensive to consume, putting the providers at an unfair disadvantage.