Ignoring widespread protests, FCC moves forward with plans to repeal net neutrality

Eighteen state attorneys general called on the FCC to delay the vote.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Republicans have demonstrated their tried and tested approach to advancing an unpopular agenda during the Trump era. Step one, introduce a corporate-friendly policy or piece of legislation. Step two, have non-partisan experts analyze the proposed policy and say it will only help the powerful. Step three, ignore the experts — and the public — and continue trying to force the policy through, while leaving the long-term consequences for others to worry about later.

The tactic almost worked with the Republicans’ attempt to repeal Obamacare in September, and looks set to work with the Republican tax bill. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to employ the same strategy to repeal net neutrality, effectively destroying the free and open internet.

Net neutrality is an Obama-era regulation which prohibits Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from speeding up or slowing down certain websites. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has long argued that overturning this regulation will result in greater investment in digital infrastructure and increased access to faster, cheaper internet, particularly in rural areas. In reality, Pai’s vision will create a two-tiered system, where corporate giants like Verizon and Comcast get to decide what websites can easily be accessed and which are relegated to a slower level of service.

Opposition to Pai’s planned repeal has been vehement. On Tuesday, 39 Democratic Senators sent an open letter to Pai urging him to abandon his “reckless plan to radically alter the free and open internet as we know it.” Several Republicans have also cautiously criticized the bill. A petition to keep the web open has gathered more then 1.5 million signatures in less than 48 hours, and more than 200 online companies — including Airbnb, Twitter, and Reddit — previously signed an open letter against net neutrality.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wrote his own open letter to the FCC, claiming that the commission’s public comment process has been corrupted by fake comments which misused people’s real names and addresses. “[The perpetrators] attacked was is supposed to be an open public process by attempting to drown out and negate the views of the real people, businesses and others who honestly commented on this important issue,” Schneiderman wrote. “Many misused the real names and addresses of actual people… that’s akin to identity theft.”

On Tuesday, Schneiderman’s office said it had identified more than two million fake comments, and called on the FCC to delay its vote further. The calls to delay the vote were later echoed by 18 other state attorneys general.

But despite the opposition, Pai remains to determined to ram the repeal through during Thursday’s vote, where it widely expected to pass along party lines, with the three Republican commissioners voting for the repeal and the two Democrats voting against. In an attempt to appease the anger, the FCC announced on Monday plans to partner with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which will allegedly make sure Internet Service Providers (ISPs) don’t engage in unfair practices and that they “live up to the promises they make to the consumers.”

But the partnership doesn’t specifically prohibit ISPs from engaging in blocking or throttling internet traffic; instead it simply prohibits them from promising up front not to engage in that sort of behavior. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who opposes the repeal, described the partnership as a “PR stunt”.

“Two years ago the FCC signed a much broader, pro-consumer agreement with the FTC that already covers this issue,” Clyburn told Arstechnica. “There is no reason to do this again other than as a smoke-and-mirrors PR stunt, distracting from the FCC’s planned destruction of the net neutrality protections later this week.”

Meanwhile, corporations and telecom lobbyists are eager to disparage notions that net neutrality will damage online innovation. In an op-ed in Recode, former FCC chairman Michael K. Powell, who was appointed head of the commission under George W. Bush and who currently works as a telecom lobbyist, described those opposed to the net neutrality repeal as “New-age Nostradamuses” predicting the destruction of the internet. “The biggest threat to Silicon Valley innovation and improving consumer experience is not net neutrality,” Powell wrote. “It is an internet that stalls and does not get better. Tech innovation and network innovation are symbiotic. Each depends on the other to keep up…The current FCC rules throw that relationship out of balance.”

But Powell (and Pai) ignore a crucial point. ISPs are not the internet. The internet is the content and services you can access online, like Facebook, Amazon, Skype, Google — all of which were once those same small-time companies that now stand to be throttled under the new tiered system. Powell, and Pai when he was a Verizon lawyer, represent the companies whose sole responsibility should be delivering fast service to the internet at a low price. Instead they are some of the U.S.’ most hated companies that have consolidated into massive corporate giants and monopolize large of the areas of the U.S. with limited broadband choices.

America’s global rivals, on the other hand, are moving forward with increased online innovation. India, for instance, recently implemented some of the strongest net neutrality frameworks in the world, while both Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg have begun courting the lucrative Chinese market. So while Republican plans to crush online innovation — despite GOP voters’ roundly rejecting the proposal — might look like a good piece of pro-business legislation in the short-term, it is also likely to contribute long-term to a decline in America’s ability to compete and innovate on the global playing field.

“Because of net neutrality, consumers and businesses have unfettered access to one another, increasing competition and consumer choice,” more than 200 online businesses wrote in their open letter to Pai. “[The FCC] would end this open commerce by repealing the current net neutrality rules and eliminating the protections that keep the internet free and open for America’s businesses and consumers.”