FCC Chief: Net Neutrality Is Dead

The Federal Communications Commission plans to completely repeal the rules governing net neutrality. It’s a more extensive step than earlier suggestions that it would simply tone down the rules.

The plan announced today will have to be formally voted on by the commissioners at a meeting next month, though the political make-up means it’s almost certain to get the three votes needed for a majority. That’s clear from comments released today in which one commissioner refers to the plan as “restoring internet freedom” while an opposing commissioner instead calls it a “plan to roll back Internet rights.”

Establishing and enforcing a principle of requiring internet carriers to treat all (legal) internet data equally has been a controversial 12-year process for the FCC. It’s led to a series of legal challenges both on the rules themselves and the ability of the FCC to make the rules in the first place.

The last big development was the FCC reclassifying broadband as a common carrier service similar to voice telephone lines, thus giving the commission more regulatory oversight. That sparked another legal debate over whether the FCC had the authority to make this reclassification. The new proposal would reverse this classification.

While that had been expected since the political make-up of the commission changed following last year’s elections, scrapping the net neutrality rules altogether is something of a surprise. In theory that would now make it possible for broadband providers to charge customers more to access particular sites, charge sites a premium to have their traffic carried “at full speed”, or even block sites altogether. That’s a particularly contentious issue given many broadband providers also have interest in TV services and either provide their own streaming video offerings or consider online video services a rival product to their cable TV packages.

The proposed changes mean the FCC would instead merely require broadband providers to be “transparent” about the way they handle traffic. Meanwhile online privacy regulation will return to being the responsibility of the Federal Trade Commission.

What happens next remains uncertain. Wired notes that consumer groups could challenge the decision as being “arbitrary and capricious.” That would be based on the idea that the commission itself argued the rules were fair just last year and normally an agency can’t completely reverse regulations simply because of a change in political leadership.

It’s also possible that Congress could introduce new laws that either established net neutrality as a legal principle or specifically barred particular actions such as blocking or slowing content without adequate cause. Politically it seems unlikely there’d be enough support to pass such legislation in both houses, let alone with the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a likely Presidential veto.

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