FCC chairman launches process to reverse net neutrality rules

"This will be the beginning of the discussion, not the end," Chairman Pai said, promising to seek public input before reversing rules.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday laid out his plans to roll back the regulatory framework for net neutrality, the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all internet content equally.

Earlier in the day, Pai shared with his fellow FCC commissioners a proposal to reverse what he called the "mistake" of regulating broadband providers under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. In a speech in Washington, DC, Paid said his proposal would bring a "return to the light-touch regulatory framework" that governed the internet before the FCC imposed Title II regulations on ISPs in 2015. Previously, broadband service was classified as a Title I information service.

Tomorrow, Pai will be publicly releasing the document he shared with the rest of the commission -- the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The commission will vote on it at its May 18 meeting. Given that Republicans have a two-to-one majority on the commission (including Pai), it will likely pass. If adopted, the FCC will seek public input on the proposal.

"In other words, this will be the beginning of the discussion, not the end," Pai said. "This decision should be made through an open and transparent process in which every American can share his or her views."

Anticipating a fierce debate over the issue, Pai suggested reversing the 2015 decision could withstand a court challenge. "Title I classification was expressly upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005, and it's more consistent with the facts and the law," he said. However, the current net neutrality rules were upheld by an appeals court last year.

In addition to facing opposition from public advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Pai's proposal will face resistance from some major technology companies. Earlier this month, a lobbying group representing internet companies including Facebook, Google, and Salesforce met with Pai to express the group's "vigorous support" for net neutrality.

"The internet industry is uniform in its belief that net neutrality preserves the consumer experience, competition, and innovation online," the group said in a public filing summarizing the meeting. "In other words, existing net neutrality rules should be enforced and kept intact."

Pai on Wednesday laid out his arguments for reversing net neutrality rules, making the case that less regulation will encourage companies to spend more building next-generation networks. He added that it will boost competition, since "Title II was designed for a monopoly, and a regulatory framework designed for a monopoly will tend to move the marketplace towards monopoly." He also called his plan the "best path toward protecting Americans' online privacy," giving the responsibility of policing broadband providers' privacy practices to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Proponents of net neutrality, such as Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), have questioned whether the rules slow investment, pointing to the latest US Census data showing that investments from telecom companies were up from 2014 to 2015.

In his remarks Wednesday, Pai also specifically proposed eliminating the "so-called Internet conduct standard," which he claimed gave the FCC "a roving mandate to micromanage the Internet."

The FCC used the Internet conduct standard to launch investigations into ISP "zero rating" policies -- policies that allow certain services to be streamed on an ISP's network without impacting a user's data cap. As they're being implemented by ISPs like AT&T, zero rating policies create an anti-competitive environment for internet-based TV and video services.

Pai has already ended those investigations, but he said, "We shouldn't leave the Internet conduct standard on the books for a future Commission to make mischief."

The chairman said the commission is also seeking comment on how to approach "the so-called bright-line rules adopted in 2015."

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