FCC votes to repeal net neutrality

The panel rolled back the 2015 Obama-era rules in a 3-2 vote.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai at Thursday's FCC meeting to vote on net neutrality regulations. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai at Thursday's FCC meeting to vote on net neutrality regulations. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 on Thursday to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules, first implemented in 2015. The vote, led by Republican Chairman Ajit Pai, was split along party lines.

“Following detailed legal and economic analysis, as well as extensive examination of comments from consumers and stakeholders, the Commission reversed the FCC’s 2015 heavy-handed utility-style regulation of broadband internet access service, which imposed substantial costs on the entire Internet ecosystem,” the commission wrote in a press release. “In place of that heavy-handed framework, the FCC is returning to the traditional light-touch framework that was in place until 2015. Moreover, the FCC today also adopted robust transparency requirements that will empower consumers as well as facilitate effective government oversight of broadband providers’ conduct.”

The commission stated that it had restored the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) jurisdiction over broadband providers who engage in unfair business practices.

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“[This decision] will protect consumers at far less cost to investment than the prior rigid and wide-ranging utility rules,” officials added. “…Restoring a favorable climate for network investment is key to closing the digital divide spurring competition and innovation that benefits consumers.”

Photo of the FCC's net neutrality  press release. (CREDIT: LUKE BARNES)
Photo of the FCC's net neutrality press release. (CREDIT: LUKE BARNES)

Net neutrality was first passed under President Obama in February 2015 and prohibits internet service providers (ISPs) from slowing down or speeding up certain websites. In 2016, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed that the internet was considered a public utility, rather than a luxury, allowing it to be regulated as such.

Pai, first appointed to the FCC by Obama in 2012 and made chairman under President Trump in January, voted against implementing net neutrality in 2015 and has argued previously that the regulations place undue burden on innovation. As ThinkProgress previously reported, Pai believes that overturning those protections would create greater incentive to invest in digital infrastructure, as well as “increased access to faster, cheaper internet, particularly in rural areas.” In a December 2016 speech to the nonprofit Free State Foundation think tank, which advocates for limited government, Pai — who former Democratic FCC aides described to Politico as a “show horse” who enjoys political grandstanding — claimed that net neutrality’s days were “numbered.”

“Today, I am more confident than ever that this prediction will come true,” he said. “And I’m hopeful that beginning next year, our general regulatory approach will be a more sober one that is guided by evidence, sound economic analysis, and a good dose of humility.”

CREDIT: New York Attorney General's office
CREDIT: New York Attorney General's office

The net neutrality debate was riddled with controversy leading up to the commission’s vote on Thursday.

On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his office had uncovered at least 2 million fraudulent public comments submitted to the FCC using stolen identities ahead of this week’s hearing. Some of the comments, Schneiderman said, had been submitted under the names of dead people.

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“Millions of fake comments have corrupted the FCC public process–including two million that stole the identities of real people, a crime under New York law,” he said in a statement. “Yet the FCC is moving full steam ahead with a vote based on this corrupted process, while refusing to cooperate with an investigation. As we’ve told the FCC: moving forward with this vote would make a mockery of our public comment process and reward those who perpetrated this fraud to advance their own hidden agenda.”

Schneiderman asked that the FCC postpone any actions until a fuller investigation into the matter was completed. On Thursday, defying that request, Pai and his Republican colleagues went ahead and repealed the 2015 regulations anyway.

Net neutrality rules protect free speech, small businesses, and especially marginalized communities who depend on an open internet for social justice. No one has to pay more to access a specific site — and providers stream your email, favorite show to binge watch, and social media in the same manner. Following Thursday’s vote, media companies began weighing in on the FCC’s decision to gut net neutrality protections.

“We’re disappointed in the decision to gut #NetNeutrality protections that ushered in an unprecedented era of innovation, creativity & civic engagement,” Netflix officials tweeted. “This is the beginning of a longer legal battle. Netflix stands w/ innovators, large & small, to oppose this misguided FCC order.”

Twitter officials followed suit, calling the decision “misguided.”

“The @FCC’s vote to gut #NetNeutrality rules is a body blow to innovation and free expression,” they wrote. “We will continue our fight to defend the open Internet and reverse this misguided decision.”

As of yet, ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have not weighed in on the FCC’s decision. However, on Wednesday, David Cohen, senior executive vice president at Comcast, claimed that any criticisms over net neutrality repeal were based in hysteria.

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“This is not the end of net neutrality. Despite repeated distortions and biased information, as well as misguided, inaccurate attacks from detractors, our Internet service is not going to change,” Cohen wrote in a blog post. “Comcast customers will continue to enjoy all of the benefits of an open Internet today, tomorrow, and in the future. Period. Consumers will remain fully protected. We have repeatedly stated, and reiterate today, that we do not and will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content.”