The Federal Communications Commission’s headquarters isn’t typically a popular protest site. On Thursday morning, however, it was a beehive of activity. Protesters swarmed the streets outside, while the main hearing room was packed with journalists. At one point, the hearing had to be stopped to allow security to sweep the room for a bomb.
All this to watch as the FCC passed a motion, as expected, to repeal net neutrality rules — ignoring the millions of Americans who voiced their disapproval, along with several major companies, like Netflix, Twitter, and Reddit, along with hundreds of other online companies that have objected to the repeal.
The FCC ruling scrapped Obama-era regulations prohibiting Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from slowing down access to certain websites or charging premium fees for higher speeds. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has persistently argued that the repeal will usher in faster, cheaper internet access — which he says will in turn unleash innovation and improve internet infrastructure, particularly in rural and low-income areas.
While the repeal passed 3-2 along party lines, with all three Republicans voting in favor, opposition was fierce inside the meeting, particularly from the two Democratic commissioners.
“I dissent from this fiercely-spun, legally-lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling, Destroying Internet Freedom Order,” Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said. “I am among the millions who is outraged. Outraged, because the FCC pulls its own teeth, abdicating responsibility to protect the nation’s broadband consumers… If past is prologue, those very same broadband internet service providers… will put profits and shareholder returns above what is best for you.”
The dissent was echoed on Capitol Hill as well. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said the repeal was a “disastrous decision.” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said the repeal “strikes a stunning blow to the promise of a free and open internet.” Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) took his opposition a step further, tweeting that he plans to introduce a Congressional Review Act resolution to reverse the repeal.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said that the repeal amounted to “dereliction of duty.” Nelson called on Congress to preserve net neutrality rules via legislation.
The outrage wasn’t confined to the corridors of power. Indeed, Pai’s eagerness to ram the policy change through, regardless of advice from businesses and policy experts, has transformed net neutrality from a little-understood concept to a rallying cry both on the internet and in real life. For many protesters, the repeal represents an opportunity for already-hated telecom companies like Comcast and AT&T to grab even more of their paycheck, especially in areas where there is only one usable ISP.
“There’s absolutely no chance that this is going to allow for any kind of improvement [to internet speeds],” Alex Thomas, a 21-year-old protester, told ThinkProgress. “Where I live in Savannah the only internet provider is Comcast and on numerous occasions I’ve found that… I’ve been throttled. I have to call then about once a month because I’m paying for 50mbs and oftentimes when I do internet speed tests it’s less than 20. That’s their level of exploitation.”
Inside the FCC hearing, however, Pai stuck to his usual talking points, insisting that the repeal of the “heavy-handed” regulations would lead to the same pots of gold that anyone who’s ever heard Republicans talk about tax cuts is familiar with: more competition and better service. But the FCC didn’t end there. In a worrying tangential development, it also ruled to review the national television ownership cap, which prohibits entities controlling stations to reach more than 39 percent of the country, a review which again passed 3-2 on party lines. The move potentially opens the door for major media corporations — like the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group — to monopolize even more of America’s airways.
Pai also would not explain why he decided to make a video mocking net neutrality opponents published on the conservative site Daily Caller. Pai was in the video with Martina Markota, prominent proponent of the fake “Pizzagate” conspiracy who has also taken to advertising “Right wing death squad apparel.” When asked by ThinkProgress why he decided to appear in the video with a conspiracy theorist, Pai said that he was “not familiar with the facts outlined.”
All hope is not yet lost though. As soon as news of the repeal was announced, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced plans to sue the FCC to block the net neutrality repeal from becoming law. The move was quickly backed by attorneys general from 17 other states, all of whom had previously asked Pai to delay the vote so they could investigate reports of fake comments submitted during the commissions’ public comment process. In light of the lawsuits, it’s increasingly likely the net neutrality repeal would be stuck in a prolonged legal battle.
Further legal battles loom, as well. The online advocacy group Free Press also announced Thursday that it plans to mount a legal challenge. “We’ll have plenty to say in court about the legal mistakes littered through this decision,” Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood said in a statement. “It’s willfully gullible and downright deceptive to suggest that nondiscrimination rules are no longer needed — despite the massive power of the cable and phone companies that control broadband access in this country.” The trade group Internet Association, whose members include Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Facebook, is also weighing legal options against the FCC’s repeal.
The impending 2018 midterms may also offer another chance to fight back against the repeal, as net neutrality has proven to be an extremely hot topic among young people in particular. If Democrats can capitalize on the outrage stemming from the FCC’s decision and make political gains, then they may be able to force a legislative solution that puts a stop to the repeal before it even takes effect.
“Net neutrality is the latest data point for voters that the administration is more interested in doing what big companies want them to do, then what people think is in their interest,” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson told Reuters. “That’s a narrative that is politically toxic for Republicans.”