FCC To Hold Vote On April 25 On Reinstating Net Neutrality Rules

The FCC will vote on April 25 on whether to reinstate net neutrality rules, which would prohibit Comcast, AT&T and other internet providers from blocking or throttling internet traffic or creating paid fast lanes to reach consumers.

With Democrats now holding a 3-2 majority on the commission, the proposal is expected to pass.

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The most controversial aspect of the proposal, as it has been in the past, is to reinstate the FCC’s Title II authority over internet service. That regulatory maneuver, vigorously opposed by major internet providers, gives the agency a firm legal footing to oversee broadband services. The Title II classification deems that internet providers as common carriers, similar to the regulatory classification given to landline phone service. The proposal would not allow the FCC to regulate rates, an FCC official said.

In a statement, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said, “After the prior administration abdicated authority over broadband services, the FCC has been handcuffed from acting to fully secure broadband networks, protect consumer data, and ensure the internet remains fast, open, and fair.  A return to the FCC’s overwhelmingly popular and court-approved standard of net neutrality will allow the agency to serve once again as a strong consumer advocate of an open internet.”

Rosenworcel was part of the Democratic majority that passed the previous set of net neutrality rules in 2015. But those were reversed in 2017, when Donald Trump took office and Republicans gained a majority on the commission.

Rosenworcel unveiled her plans to reinstate the rules in September, and the commission voted to put the proposal up for public comment the following month. But in contrast to past net neutrality efforts, when figures like HBO host John Oliver weighed in, there has been substantially less publicity around this effort. According to the docket of the proceedings, there have been just over 52,000 comments filed. As the FCC moved to repeal the rules in 2017, more than 21.7 million comments were submitted, although a later Pew Research Center analysis found that 6% of those comments, or about 1.3 million, were unique.

On Capitol Hill, Congress’ recent focus has been on AI and a proposal to require TikTok to divest from its Chinese-owned parent, ByteDance.

Lawmakers have been unable to codify any type of net neutrality rules, even though there have been legislative efforts over the past 15 years, leaving it to the FCC and, ultimately, the courts. The agency had previously tried to establish net neutrality guidelines or rules in 2005 and in 2010 without reclassifying internet service as a common carrier, but those efforts were stymied amid legal challenges.

Rosenworcel and FCC officials are pointing to the need to reinstate the rules as essential to address security concerns, arguing that the agency is unable to respond without the Title II authority over broadband.

“For example, without reclassification, the FCC is limited in its authority to direct foreign-owned companies deemed to be national security threats to discontinue any domestic or international broadband services under Sec. 214 [of the Communications Act]– as the agency has done with telephone services,” the agency said. The FCC also said that with the updated rules, broadband providers would not be able to sell consumers’ location data and other sensitive information.

The FCC also pointed to the need to address outages, particularly when it comes to public safety and times of national crisis, like the Covid pandemic.

Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, which represents broadband providers, said in a statement, “So here we go again. It’s been two years since the White House asked Congress and the country to be all in on Internet for All. But just as this goal is now within reach, the FCC is pumping the brakes with this entirely counterproductive, unnecessary, and anti-consumer regulatory distraction. America deserves better.”

When the rules were repealed in 2017, many net neutrality advocates warned of the future of the internet if providers were able to block or throttle traffic, or create tiers of paid “fast lanes” giving some types of contents over others. Those who favored the repeal back then, including then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, have pointed out that those warnings have not come to pass. But advocates note that a number of states have, since then, passed their own sets of net neutrality rules.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior counselor for the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, said in a statement that reinstating the rules would “assure that a handful of powerful telecommunications companies will not favor themselves and their business partners over consumers, non-profits and small businesses who also seek to speak and to receive information over the internet.”

While the latest net neutrality fight may give many a sense of deja vu, the nature of the debate has shifted a bit. Republicans have generally opposed reclassification of broadband service as a common carrier, but some GOP-led states have done just that when it comes to another aspect of the internet ecosystem: social media companies. Texas and Florida passed laws that treat social media platforms like Facebook and X/Twitter as common carriers, moves that placed restrictions on the companies’ content moderation practices. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in February.

While the proposed rules are designed to prevent internet providers from creating paid “fast lanes,” they would not prevent streaming services like Netflix from using content delivery networks. Those networks feature servers that help boost loading times and reduce bandwith costs.

The FCC also debuted a video with Rosenworcel, explaining the proposal.

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