FCC prepares to scrap net neutrality rules in US

Rollback of regulations would mark a significant victory for broadband and telecom companies at expense of internet firms

 

The US Federal Communications Commission is preparing a full repeal of net neutrality rules that require broadband providers to give consumers equal access to all content on the internet, putting more power in the hands of those companies to dictate people’s online experiences.

Ajit Pai, the chairman of the FCC, plans to reveal a sweeping proposal to scrap the net neutrality rules on Tuesday, according to two sources.

The rules, created during the Obama administration, prohibit broadband providers from blocking, slowing down or charging more for the delivery of certain internet content. The proposal will be presented in a December meeting of FCC commissioners and is expected to pass in a 3-2 vote along party lines.

Regulations

A rollback of net neutrality regulations would mark a significant victory for broadband and telecom companies like AT&T and Comcast and would amount to a strike against consumers. When the rules were passed in 2015, they underlined the importance of high-speed internet to the lives of Americans and the need to more strongly regulate the communications service like a utility, as essential as electricity and the telephone.

But under a repeal, companies like AT&T and Comcast may be able to charge people higher fees to access certain websites and online services. The companies may also be able to prioritise their own services while disadvantaging websites run by rivals.

Mr Pai plans to accompany the repeal of net neutrality with several other measures that will also benefit broadband companies, said the sources. That includes suggesting that the Federal Trade Commission, which has traditionally not brought many cases, be the enforcement agency of net neutrality violations, they said.

In addition, Mr Pai plans to reverse a decision from the Obama administration that declared broadband be treated like a utility, the sources said. That classification had opened the door to many more regulations for broadband providers. The FCC did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the repeal plans.

Envy

Consumer groups and Democrats decried the proposed changes. “It ain’t broke, so why fix it?” Julius Genachowski, a former Democratic chairman of the FCC, said in an interview. “The core rules of no blocking, no discrimination, and transparency have worked to create an ecosystem of innovation and investment that’s the envy of the rest of the world.”

Net neutrality has long been a thorny topic that has ignited lobbying battles and heated debate between internet and telecom companies. On one side, broadband companies have argued that the regulations encumbered their business plans. On the other side, tech giants like Google and Amazon said that without such rules, the broadband providers could become gatekeepers of what internet content reached consumers.

While some of the largest companies can afford to pay for faster delivery of their online content, startups like Etsy and Reddit, which have been fierce defenders of net neutrality, have said smaller companies would be squashed by what they view as tolls just to make sure their sites reach consumers.

During the Obama administration, the head of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, said net neutrality regulations were necessary to prevent a company like Verizon from slowing down the delivery of a service like Netflix or Sling TV, which competes with Verizon’s video service, Fios.

Proposal

Mr Pai’s proposal to scrap net neutrality rules is the latest in a deregulation blitz that includes the rollback of media ownership and broadband privacy rules. Mr Pai, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, opposed the rules when they were created in 2015, saying they would stifle investment by broadband providers.

More recently, Mr Pai has clearly signalled his opposition to net neutrality. He has called the rules an example of government overreach in the fast-growing broadband industry. In April, a few months after he was named FCC chairman, he announced his intention to overhaul the rules, saying the threat of harms to consumers were only theoretical.

“The truth of the matter is that we decided to abandon successful policies solely because of hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom,” Mr Pai said in an April speech about the creation of the net neutrality rules. The rollback comes as the Justice Department’s antitrust division under Makan Delrahim, another government official appointed by Trump, has taken the opposite approach with AT&T. On Monday, the Justice Department filed suit to block AT&T’s $85.4 billion merger with Time Warner.

- New York Times