Above Photo: Pro-net neutrality rally at the White House in years past.
Net neutrality assault can be stopped by citizens, Senate Democrats say
Democrats accuse FCC Chairman Ajit Pai of doing ISPs’ bidding.
US Senate Democrats today vowed that they won’t let net neutrality rules be eliminated without a fight, and they urged citizens to make their voices heard by lawmakers and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai.
“Remember that two years ago, nearly 4 million Americans offered comments on the Open Internet Order,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said at a press conference this morning (video). “That’s by far, by a factor of at least two, more than any comments on any rule before the FCC in history.”
But if Congress and the FCC try to eliminate net neutrality rules, there will be a “political firestorm that will make the 4 million who communicated several years ago look like a minuscule number,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said.
Stopping the assault on net neutrality rules won’t be easy, said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “This is another one where early on it’s going to feel like we’re really pushing the rock up the hill, but if it comes down to the citizens and people at the grassroots against the special interests, we can win that,” Wyden said. “I’m looking forward to that fight.”
The senators did not talk much about exactly how US residents can contribute to the debate. The FCC hasn’t opened a new net neutrality proceeding, but people are still submitting public comments on the one that resulted in the current rules. (There’s a hyperlink titled “New Filing” that can be used to add a comment.) Since Congress may also have a hand in the fate of net neutrality rules, people with opinions can also go the classic route of calling or writing to their representatives and senators.
The Senate Democrats said they will oppose any net neutrality bill that doesn’t live up to the protections offered by the current rules.
Markey: FCC chair “will do bidding” of ISPs
Under former Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC in February 2015 reclassified broadband as a Title II common carrier service. The common carrier designation was used to impose network neutrality rules that prohibit home and mobile Internet providers from blocking or throttling traffic or giving priority to Web services in exchange for payment. The reclassification and rules were upheld by a federal appeals court last year despite a lawsuit filed by broadband providers.
But the FCC shifted from Democratic to Republican control after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, with Ajit Pai now serving as chairman. Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, has vowed to roll back net neutrality rules, and Republican members of Congress have proposed numerous bills that would change or eliminate the existing rules. US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who filed legislation titled the “Internet Freedom Act” to overturn the net neutrality rules, was recently named chairperson of a key Congressional subcommittee on telecommunications.
Senate Democrats today voiced strong opposition to Pai’s stance on net neutrality. “Net neutrality rules ensure that those with the best ideas, not simply the best-funded ideas, have the opportunity to share their content with the world,” Markey said.
But “the big broadband barons and their Republican allies” want to let ISPs act as gatekeepers for Internet access, “and they have a new FCC chairman in Ajit Pai, who will do their bidding,” Markey said. “Chairman Pai voted against the Open Internet Order and has spoken openly about how he plans to get rid of net neutrality rules altogether.”
Markey said one result of eliminating net neutrality rules would be that “harmful and anti- competitive zero-rating services will become the norm.”
Zero-rating exempts certain online services from data caps. Under Wheeler, the FCC accused AT&T and Verizon Wireless of violating net neutrality rules by exempting their own video services from mobile data caps while charging other content providers for the same data cap exemptions. Pai opposed the investigation and the FCC rescinded its findings last week, giving ISPs the green light to continue and expand paid zero-rating.
Another net neutrality concern pertains to “paid prioritization,” in which ISPs could charge online content providers for faster connections to broadband customers. If the paid prioritization ban is lifted, “young, upstart content providers won’t be able to pay for Internet fast lanes, and consumers will be left paying more for less,” Markey said.
We asked Pai’s office if he has any response to the Senate Democrats’ statements and will provide an update if we receive one.
Pai’s opposition to net neutrality rules
After his first FCC meeting as chairman, Pai said, “I favor a free and open Internet and I oppose Title II.” He did not say whether he intends to enforce the net neutrality rules while they remain in place.
Pai’s opposition to net neutrality rules has not been exclusively about Title II. In May 2014, Pai voted against a preliminary version of the rules that did not include a Title II reclassification and were weaker than the ones ultimately approved the following year.
Pai said that the Internet’s “vibrant and competitive free market” should be “unfettered by federal or state regulation” in his net neutrality dissents in both May 2014 and February 2015. These principles were set down by the bipartisan Telecommunications Act of 1996, Pai noted.
It’s possible that Congress could strip the FCC of its Title II authority over broadband providers but still impose net neutrality rules. The elimination of Title II would have some other impacts. For example, the FCC used its Title II authority to impose privacy rules that require ISPs to get opt-in consent from consumers before sharing Web browsing data and other private information with advertisers and other third parties.
Title II also requires ISPs’ rates and practices to be “just and reasonable.” This could prevent ISPs from price gouging home Internet and mobile customers. The standard also governs interconnection disputes in which content providers or network operators pay ISPs for direct network connections; when these disputes are unresolved and network connections consequently aren’t upgraded, website and video performance can be degraded.
Today’s press conference also featured consumer advocacy groups and the CEO of a company that lets anyone launch a Netflix-style subscription video service. Jamie Wilkinson, CEO and co-founder of Vimeo subsidiary VHX, said that “cable companies are threatened by up-and-comers like us who are providing competing video services that run on the same pipes. It’s not surprising that they’re trying to stack the decks in their favor, which is exactly what changing these rules does.”
Wilkinson warned against letting ISPs picking winners and losers. “I hate buffering video, you hate buffering video, and I think we can all agree that small businesses deserve the same opportunities as big businesses,” he said.