The Federal Communications Commission has unveiled its plan to undo net neutrality rules passed by the Obama-era FCC in 2015. The plan involves undoing a rule that classified internet providers as utilities, much like electricity or water companies.
Those rules forced ISPs to play by some strict, consumer-friendly rules: no blocking sites, no paid “fast lanes” for services like Netflix, and no throttling individual services and apps. They uphold the principle of net neutrality, but critics say that they also introduce unnecessary bureaucracy and barriers for small internet providers.
The new FCC chair, Ajit Pai, has argued that classifying ISPs as utilities was unnecessarily “heavy-handed” and a move that was “all about politics.” He maintains that since there was no problem with ISPs before, the Title II rules were unnecessary. “Earlier today I shared with my fellow commissioners a proposal to reverse the mistake of Title II and return to the light touch framework that served us so well during the Clinton Administration, Bush administration, and first six years of the Obama administration,” Pai said in a speech.
One of Pai’s main arguments is that Title II classification discouraged investment in telecoms infrastrucutre, as companies and investors became concerned about the future of the industry. However, he didn’t supply evidence to back up his claim, and an independent analysis of financial statements from the country’s largest ISPs showed that investment went up in the years following Title II classification.
Pai isn’t moving to undo Title II classification immediately. Instead, the FCC will make a provisional vote on Pai’s plan on May 18th. A period of public comment will follow, and a final vote on the measure is expected later this year.
Throughout this process, Pai has argued that he’s not against the concept of net neutrality: he just thinks that the Title II classification is an unnecessary way of enforcing those rules. Instead, he’s previously called for a voluntary pledge from ISPs to maintain net neutrality, although that wasn’t mentioned today.
The biggest problem in the argument is that net neutrality is still wildly misunderstood by lawmakers. Republicans tend to see it as another example of vast government overreach, hijacking privately-built infrastructure and killing any reason for companies to invest. Proponents of net neutrality argue that the telecoms industry is controlled by a handful of massive companies, most with regional monopolies, and strong net neutrality rules are the only way to stop those local monopolies from ripping off customers.
Senator Brian Schatz, the top Democrat on the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, hit out against Pai’s plan. “[Pai’s] proposal would take away the American people’s access to a free and open internet and give control to big corporations,” said Senator Schatz. “A free and open internet is essential to our democracy and our economy. Everyone should be outraged by Chairman Pai’s proposal.”