FCC Takes First Step in Net Neutrality Reversal

The controversial rollback of the 2015 Open Internet Order took a step forward after the Federal Communications Commission members voted 2-1 in favor of the reversal.

Despite a spirited, and at times pointed, dissent from one Federal Communications Commission (FCC) official, the governing body voted 2-1 on May 18 to advance what critics are calling a serious threat to net neutrality.

During the brief Thursday morning debate, the commissioners discussed the merits of the Restoring Internet Freedom rule-change proposal. The controversial item gained attention when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced earlier this year that the agency would consider rolling back the 2015 Open Internet Order. 

The crux of the argument made by proposal proponents centers on how Internet service providers (ISPs) are regulated. Under the current rules, ISPs are regulated like a utility provider. The rule change, if successful, could reclassify the service as an information service, taking it out from under what light-touch regulation supporters see as burdensome regulation.

If allowed to operate as an information service, ISPs could operate more like cable companies in shaping the online content. Opponents argue this would lead to a host of discriminatory practices and an end to what is referred to as “net neutrality.”

Though the commission ultimately voted favorably, not all of the commissioners had positive things to say about the proposed order, titled “Restoring Internet Freedom.” Commissioner Mignon Clyburn sharply criticized the proposal, saying it would be better named the “Destroying Internet Freedom” and that its supporters were subscribing to a “hollow theory” of trickle-down Internet economics.

“This proposal has the potential to damage our authority to provide broadband for the poorest and most remotely located Americans, unless the underlying goal is to actually weaken our ability to support broadband through our universal service programs,” she said.

Where the commission's rule-change proponents argued the more stringent regulations of ISPs had damaged the innovation and investment since they were put in place in 2015, Clyburn asserted that the majority was “woefully blind” to the reality of the situation.

The commissioner further asserted in her “vociferous dissent” that the proposed rule changes had every indication of “interpretive gymnastics” and a “political rush job” — a point she carefully repeated twice.

“I have yet to see a credible analysis that suggests that broadband provider capital expenditures have declined as a result of our 2015 Open Internet Order, but of course, that does not keep those dead set on dismantling open Internet protections as we know them from repeating the same tired, unproven talking points.”

Support on the part of Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly gave the proposal the edge it needed to move the next phase for comment and further debate.

O’Rielly said the efforts would move forward in a transparent manner, and decisions would be made based on the merits of data and fact rather than supposition — something he said did not occur when the issue came before the commission in 2015.

“One of the reasons why I welcome the opportunity to revisit these rules is that the prior commission changed course so abruptly that it did not take the time to sufficiently examine the law and record, and did not adequately respond to opposing viewpoints and alternative proposals,” he said.

Pai argued, as he has in past comments, that the Internet flourished under a “bipartisan, light-touch” regulatory framework. He also praised Clinton-era decisions to leave the space unhindered by regulation, seemingly ignoring the fact that the Internet and access to vital services has increased and changed over the last two decades.

The former Verizon Wireless legal counsel also argued that advances in both technology and the digital economy through networks has allowed for the rise of companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google, and were made possible by the lack of regulatory barriers.

“The Internet was not broken in 2015. We were not living in a digital dystopia,” he said. “Nonetheless, the FCC that year succumbed to partisan pressure from the White House and changed course.”

Pai also said the implementation of the 2015 rules were responsible for a decline in the broadband capital expenditures, a point Clyburn disputes.

Though this rule change proposal's approval is nowhere near the final step in the process, Clyburn called for opposition to voice their concerns about the proposed rule change. Pai vowed that all documents would be provided and that full transparency would be adhered to throughout the decision-making process.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.