The FCC Has Repealed Net Neutrality, But Nobody Is Certain What Happens Next
There is universal agreement that the Federal Communication Commission's repeal of the net neutrality rule the agency adopted in 2015 is a very big deal, but there's not much agreement about what specifically the future holds for internet users.
Presuming the repeal stays on the books, legions of opponents say it could mean higher internet prices, blazing speed for content from wealthy sources and carrier-pigeon speed for everyone else, preferential treatment for certain content and obscurity, or outright banning, of disfavored content (such as from an ISP's competitor). Proponents of the repeal, a group not much larger than the ISPs, say "light touch" regulation will spur innovation and investment (a claim mocked hilariously by The Onion).
Michael Powell, a former FCC commissioner turned CEO of NCTA -- The Internet & Television Association, ridiculed repeal opponents as "new-age Nostradamuses [who] predict the internet will stop working, democracy will collapse, plague will ensue and locusts will cover the land." Powell predicted repeal of net neutrality will return the nation to the pre-2015 era when "we saw tremendous innovation on the web and a network that grew faster than any technology in history.''
Others, particularly those without financial ties to ISPs, say it is impossible to know in detail how repealing net neutrality will play out, but it clearly gives ISPs the legal right to play favorites with content. Comcast has pledged, on Twitter at least, to "not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content."
That pledge, to some, including Tim Wu, the Columbia University professor who coined the term "net neutrality,'' simply underscores the point that ISPs will no longer be barred from doing any of that. Wu noted to The New York Times that what the FCC is voting on goes further than simply repealing the net neutrality rule by explicitly granting ISPs authority to block content.
"An allowance of blocking is really pretty shocking," Wu told the Times.
In a scathing open letter to congressional leaders with oversight of the FCC, 21 internet pioneers including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said what the FCC is voting on today does much more than simply return to the regulatory system in place prior to net neutrality rule. The "technically incorrect proposed Order dismantles 15 years of targeted oversight from both Republican and Democratic FCC chairs, who understood the threats that internet access providers could pose to open markets on the internet," they wrote.
Roger L. Kay, a technology analyst, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that repealing the rule will allow online firms with the most money and largest need for broadband -- think Netflix, Amazon, Facebook etc. -- to simply pay for the speed they require and pass those costs, directly or indirectly, onto consumers who "will end up paying higher prices for essentially the same service.''
Whatever occurs in the long term, the short-term prospect is for litigation, civil and perhaps criminal, legislation at least at the state level and likely continuing debate in the midterm elections next year.
Opponents of the rule repeal are already preparing to challenge the action in federal court as "arbitrary and capricious," reasoning the FCC that successfully defended the rule against challenges from ISPs cannot, in less than two years, reverse all its reasoning. Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, told Reuters, "As an FCC lawyer, I would be kind of red-faced going to court and saying, 'You know what? We want to overturn that (the 2015 rules we just defended).''
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is conducting a criminal investigation that he claims has uncovered 2 million fake comments supporting repeal of net neutrality submitted under stolen identities. Schneiderman's office has confirmed more than 5,000 stolen identities and suspects there are hundreds of thousands more. The FCC has refused nine requests from Schneiderman to cooperate in the investigation.
"Millions of fake comments have corrupted the FCC public process -- including 2 million that stole the identities of real people, a crime under New York law," Schneiderman said in a press release. "Yet the FCC is moving full steam ahead with a vote based on this corrupted process, while refusing to cooperate with an investigation."
Politically, the broad unpopularity of the FCC action seems certain to inject the issue into the elections next year. Thirty-nine senators, all Democrats except for two independents who caucus with Democrats, wrote a blistering letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urging him to "abandon your reckless plan to radically alter the free and open internet as we know it."
Among the signatories is every Democratic senator believed to be a presidential candidate in 2020.
The letter explicitly criticizes the pending FCC action for making "sure that no other state or local government can fill this gaping consumer protection void by preempting them from adopting their own open internet consumer protections.''
The FCC's effort to stop any future action by states to pass their own net neutrality laws is certain to be challenged. Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat whose name has been floated as a 2020 presidential candidate, has announced he will pursue legislation in his state to protect net neutrality there.
The FCC's decision is final, but not much else is.