Technology

The Republican plan to kill net neutrality could change the internet forever

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced his long-awaited proposal to undo net neutrality Wednesday, officially restarting one of the most vicious and high-profile political fights of the Obama era.

“When we are saddled with FCC rules that will deny many Americans high-speed internet access and jobs, doing nothing is nothing doing,” Pai said at a Washington, D.C. event co-hosted by the right-wing political advocacy organization FreedomWorks. “Instead, we need rules that focus on growth and infrastructure investment, rules that expand high-speed internet access everywhere and give Americans more online choice, faster speeds, and more innovation.”

The FCC chairman wants to reverse the 2015 decision to regulate broadband internet providers like utilities under what’s called a Title II classification. This requires telecoms to adhere to the principles of net neutrality, meaning that they can’t throttle internet speeds in order to reduce congestion and persuade consumers to pay more for faster packages, or require services like Netflix to pay more for separate “fast-lane service.”

Pai was eager to roll back the Obama administration’s internet regulations even before he was named FCC chairman in January. “We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation,” he said in a December speech while still an FCC commissioner.

And earlier this month, Pai loudly backed Republican legislation that undid rules preventing internet providers from selling personal user information, such as browsing histories, to advertisers.

Pai, who was formerly a corporate lawyer for Verizon, argues along with other conservatives that net neutrality rules inhibit internet infrastructure investment and circumvent Congressional authority. Instead, they say, regulatory authority should lie with the Federal Trade Commission, the agency that punishes corporations for deceptive or anti-competitive practices.

The FTC, however, doesn’t actually write the rules by which telecoms have to abide — the agency can only issue fines. Thus, several experts have argued, the FTC isn’t equipped to enforce internet non-discrimination.

“[Pai’s] plan would leave the FCC — the expert agency tasked with overseeing communications networks — without any role when it comes to the most important network in history,” Obama-era FCC official Gigi Sohn wrote Wednesday in a story for Mashable. “This would leave the FCC powerless to prohibit fraudulent billing, price gouging, and practices that violate consumers’ privacy.”

Acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen, an ideological ally of Pai who is widely believed to be “auditioning” for the permanent job, has positioned her agency as fully capable of punishing companies for violations.

“Investigation and enforcement is a particular strength of the FTC,” Ohlhausen said recently at a Washington conference on privacy and the law. “I have a lot of confidence in the FTC and our abilities, that’s the message I want to put forth.”

Ohlhausen released a statement Wednesday shortly after Pai’s speech concluded, calling it an “important step toward restoring the FTC’s ability to protect broadband subscribers from unfair and deceptive practices, including violations of their privacy.”

Net neutrality advocates and most of Silicon Valley, however, argue that internet providers shouldn’t be able to determine what consumers get access to and how they get access to it. And the American public would seem to agree. When the FCC was accepting public comment about net neutrality reforms in 2014, the agency said it received more than 3 million submissions, about two-thirds of which supported Title II reclassification.

One poll taken after the recent privacy rollback bill was quickly shoved through Congress found that 83 percent of the country opposed the legislation.

“Last month’s attack on broadband privacy was just the Republicans’ opening salvo… we cannot and will not let the defeat of net neutrality happen,” Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey said on a call with reporters prior to Pai’s Wednesday address.

He he was joined by Connecticut Sen. Dick Blumenthal and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden; all three all Democrats. Blumenthal noted that more than 800 startups have signaled their support for net neutrality.

Advocates for net neutrality believe they can garner enough support ahead of the anticipated mid-May FCC vote on Pai’s proposal in order to kill it in Congress. Evan Greer, campaign director of the civil liberties group Fight for the Future, pointed to the 50 House Republicans who “broke ranks” on April’s broadband privacy vote despite the fact that opponents had so little time to lobby before the vote.

“We have several weeks at least to mobilize opposition to this,” Greer said. “Republicans are misjudging their base on this issue. The reality is that outside of the Beltway, this is not a partisan issue. I think the more we get into this, the more the GOP and the Trump administration is going to hear from their voters that they are just plain wrong.”

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