Ajit Pai and the FCC are on track to roll back net neutrality in the US
Do you use the internet? Then odds are pretty good that you’re in favor of net neutrality. Unfortunately, the US is poised to roll back Obama-era protections for a free and fair internet. Here’s what you can do to help save the internet.
We come to it at last – the final battle for net neutrality. The concept of a free and fair internet has been something of a contentious issue for the last few years, as activists, telecoms, and government officials in the US alike have grappled with how to regulate something as free-wheeling as the internet.
This week, Ajit Pai, the current leader of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), announced an official proposal to roll back the Open Internet Order of 2015. The Open Internet Order of 2015 formally laid down three specific rules for internet providers: no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization.
Pai’s latest proposal eliminates these rules for internet providers, doing away with extremely popular consumer protection regulations. If this proposal goes through as expected, internet providers like Cox and Verizon can charge websites for faster load times, essentially turning the internet into a pay-to-play tiered scheme.
This “light-touch” approach would give your internet service providers free reign to control your online experience. How? By prioritizing traffic to their own sites, by controlling the speed of page loads (a practice known as throttling), and even blocking access to certain sites. Making it worse, the FCC will also trump any state-level regulations requiring net neutrality.
They could even chop up the internet much like they’ve unbundled cable. How would you feel about paying an extra $5 a month for streaming music, or another $20 for streaming video? After all, it’s not like it’s easy to switch internet providers. (For those outside the US, most Americans only have one option for internet based on where they live.)
Additionally, it would turn over regulatory power and compliance oversight to the Federal Trade Commission, an entity most known for preventing anti-competitive business practices. While the FTC is great, it doesn’t always have the jurisdiction to bring cases to court through its own attorneys. Instead, it relies or supports actions with the Department of Justice, now headed by the former Republican senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions.
Wait, what’s net neutrality?
Right now, the internet is a level playing field. All data is treated the same, with no regard to where it comes from or who creates it. It’s how small startups become internet giants (hey Facebook!). There are no barriers to entry.
Basically, cable companies and internet service providers are trying to create a tiered system for the internet. They would be able to charge tech companies money to send content to users more quickly. A “fast-pass” for the internet, if you will.
This means that big, established companies will have the money to pay for a premium service, while new startups might have a hard time getting a foot in the door. Netflix can afford to pay Comcast to ensure their users have an excellent connection. But the “next” Netflix won’t.
Also, getting rid of net neutrality opens the door for internet providers to prioritize their own services over their competitors. If your internet provider also owns CBS-online, obviously they will prioritize bandwidth to their own site over Netflix.
- In 2005, an ISP in North Carolina called Madison River Communications blocked users from accessing its competitor, the popular VOIP service Vonage.
- From 2007-2009, AT&T tried to block Skype on Apple phones.
- From 2011-2013, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon blocked Google Wallet in favor of their own poorly named mobile wallet app, ISIS.
- In 2012, Verizon Wireless was caught blocking people from using tethering applications on their phones, which people were using to circumvent Verizon’s own paid service.
- In 2012, AT&T said that it would disable FaceTime on customer’s iPhones unless they subscribed to a more expensive plan.
While the cable industry insists that it will guarantee net neutrality without any legal requirement to do so, it sounds a little insincere. When the Consumerist contacted 18 service providers about promising to do so, none of them guaranteed it in writing.
After all, during the oral arguments in Verizon v. FCC in 2013, the Verizon counsel Helgi Walker stated that if the rules like the Open Internet Order were not in place, “we would be exploring those types of arrangements.”
Haven’t we done this already?
Yes, actually. This whole situation was resolved in favor of the consumers in 2016, when the courts resolved that the Open Internet Order of 2015 stood as good law.
However, when Ajit Pai became the chairman of the FCC at the beginning of this year, he brought his very vocal disagreements with this resolution. Since then, he has spearheaded this effort to roll back consumer protections.
What can I do to help?
Currently, the five person FCC board has a 3 – 2 Republican majority. They are expected to pass this proposal in December.
As always, you can comment with the FCC itself. Be clear and specific: you want strong net neutrality, backed by Title 2 oversight of ISPs. However, due to some shenanigans with the FCC’s online commenting system, Pai intends on ignoring all of the public comments wholesale.
But, there is still something you can do: call your congresspeople. While that seems to be the answer to pretty much everything going on in 2017, it’s a good one.
Net neutrality enjoys popular support among Democrats and Republicans alike. Show your representatives that this is a topic you are passionate about and it gives the Republican majority less cover to push the anti-net neutrality agenda. Right now, Battleforthenet.com is coordinating calls to congresspeople.
Surely, the internet is worth an awkward three minute conversation with a congressional staffer.
Want to protest in person?
You can do that too.
Protests are being organized for December 7 at various Verizon store locations across the United States. Ajit Pai used to be a top lawyer for Verizon, a company which stands to profit handsomely from the repeal of the Open Internet Order.
Redditors are also organizing a protest in front of the FCC building on December 13, the day when the board intends on voting on the proposal to roll back net neutrality.
Hang on, what about the courts?
Ahh, there’s the thing. The courts are likely to be a big spanner in the works. In fact, your comments with the FCC are likely some of the most valuable things to a court case in favor of net neutrality.
uh wow, this tweet really traveled, haha. to answer the most common question: in 2015 it hit the Federal Register about 6 weeks later; same timeline this go-around would put it around Jan. 30-31, with lawsuits Jan 31-Feb 1. IF it’s the same.
— Kate Cox (@KCoxDC) November 22, 2017
Consumer protection groups and neutrality activists are expected to file lawsuits more or less simultaneously as the decision is handed down from the FCC.
Additionally, as Tim Wu writes in the New York Times, there’s another problem for Pai: government agencies are restricted from changing standing government regulations every time the leadership changes. It’s to encourage stability among government organizations and prevent a massive yo-yoing every time there’s an election.
The problem for Mr. Pai is that government agencies are not free to abruptly reverse longstanding rules on which many have relied without a good reason, such as a change in factual circumstances. A mere change in F.C.C. ideology isn’t enough. As the Supreme Court has said, a federal agency must “examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action.” Given that net neutrality rules have been a huge success by most measures, the justification for killing them would have to be very strong.
It isn’t. In fact, it’s very weak. From what we know so far, Mr. Pai’s rationale for eliminating the rules is that cable and phone companies, despite years of healthy profit, need to earn even more money than they already do — that is, that the current rates of return do not yield adequate investment incentives. More specifically, Mr. Pai claims that industry investments have gone down since 2015, the year the Obama administration last strengthened the net neutrality rules.
Setting aside whether industry investments should be the dominant measure of success in internet policy (what about improved access for students? or the emergence of innovations like streaming TV?), Mr. Pai is not examining the facts: Security and Exchange Commission filings reveal an increase in internet investments since 2015, as the internet advocacy group Free Press has demonstrated.
But Mr. Pai faces a more serious legal problem. Because he is killing net neutrality outright, not merely weakening it, he will have to explain to a court not just the shift from 2015 but also his reasoning for destroying the basic bans on blocking and throttling, which have been in effect since 2005 and have been relied on extensively by the entire internet ecosystem.
I highly recommend heading over and reading Wu’s full argument. It may be that the internet is saved through the courts and regulations, but it’s not over till the fat lady on Spotify sings.
We can do this
Although things look dark for the future of a free and fair internet, I have faith. Extensive citizen action and protest has been a major force for good in 2017.
All we need is for your voice. If you love the internet, it’s time to stand up and be counted.