WASHINGTON — FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will seek the repeal of almost all of the agency’s net neutrality rules at its Dec. 14 meeting, setting off a contentious battle that is likely to end up back in court.
Pai is proposing to roll back net neutrality guidelines that have been in place since 2015 that prohibit Internet providers from blocking or throttling traffic, or from selling “fast lanes” for speedier access to consumers.
“For almost twenty years, the Internet thrived under the light-touch regulatory approach established by President Clinton and a Republican Congress,” Pai said in a statement “This bipartisan framework led the private sector to invest $1.5 trillion building communications networks throughout the United States. And it gave us an Internet economy that became the envy of the world.
“But in 2015, the prior FCC bowed to pressure from President Obama. On a party-line vote, it imposed heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the Internet. That decision was a mistake. It’s depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation.”
Pai circulated a draft of his proposal to fellow commissioners that will retain one rule, to require Internet service providers to disclosure their practices for handling web traffic, while abandoning the rest of the regulations.
He also is calling for the Federal Trade Commission to police online privacy.
“Working with my colleagues, I look forward to returning to the light-touch, market-based framework that unleashed the digital revolution and benefited consumers here and around the world,” Pai said in the statement.
He plans to release the full proposal on Wednesday. He outlined the plan in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.
Pai also will seek to repeal the FCC’s reclassification of internet service as a common carrier. That regulatory maneuver gave the agency the legal footing to impose the robust rules. But Pai argues that the new rules are unnecessary.
Given the FCC’s Republican majority, he has the votes for his proposal. Commissioner Brendan Carr said that he would vote for it, and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly opposed previous FCC efforts to impose net neutrality rules. Carr predicted that the light-touch regulation “will promote innovation and investment for all Americans.”
But an array of public interest groups and Democratic lawmakers are expected to sound the alarm about the pending action in the next three weeks. In the lead up to the FCC’s vote in 2015, net neutrality advocates flooded the FCC with comments, staged demonstrations in front of the agency and even blocked the chairman from leaving his home one morning.
This time around, the FCC received more than 22 million comments, shattering previous records, although there are doubts as to how many of those comments are unique and genuine and how many were generated by bots. As he did in the previous net neutrality battle, John Oliver, host of HBO’s “This Week Tonight,” implored viewers to submit comments to save the net neutrality rules.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat who supported that net neutrality rules adopted two years ago, said in a statement, “In just two days, many of us will join friends and family in celebrating the spirit of Thanksgiving. But as we learned today, the FCC majority is about to deliver a cornucopia full of rotten fruit, stale grains, and wilted flowers topped off with a plate full of burnt turkey.
She added, “Their Destroying Internet Freedom Order would dismantle net neutrality as we know it by giving the green light to our nation’s largest broadband providers to engage in anti-consumer practices, including blocking, slowing down traffic, and paid prioritization of online applications and services.”
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote on Twitter, “I’m going to give it all I’ve got. Our Internet economy is the envy of the world. It was built on a foundation of openness. We’re going to have to fight to keep it that way–for all of us. Make noise. Make change. Let’s save #SaveNetNeutrality.”
The FCC’s action is a boon for internet service providers, who have long decried the FCC’s approach as regulatory overreach. By contrast, internet companies like Netflix and Google participated in a July “day of action” to urge the FCC to retain the rules, although they have not been as visible as they were in previous battles over rules of the road for the internet.
“Netflix supports strong net neutrality. We oppose the FCC’s proposal to roll back these core protections,” a spokesperson for the company said.
Other companies, like Facebook and Amazon, deferred to the statements coming out of their trade group, the Internet Association.
Michael Beckerman, the president and CEO of the association, said in a statement that the current FCC rules “created bright-line, enforceable net neutrality protections that guarantee consumers access to the entire internet and preserve competition online.
“This proposal fails to achieve any of these objectives. Consumers have little choice in their ISP, and service providers should not be allowed to use this gatekeeper position at the point of connection to discriminate against websites and apps.”
Hollywood studios have not officially weighed in on the issue. The six members of the MPAA are said to be in disagreement over the rules. Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, opposed FCC efforts two years ago to reclassify internet service like a utility. But other content players wonder if they could benefit from regulatory protections that would provide guarantees in how their content is delivered to consumers online.
Janko Roettgers contributed to this report.