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Tech companies are pushing the FCC to preserve its net neutrality rules

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. (Pau Barrena/Bloomberg)

Tech companies are pushing the Federal Communications Commission not to water down its rules on net neutrality, teeing up a confrontation between Silicon Valley and Washington as the nation's top telecom regulator mulls a plan to undo the Obama administration's regulations for Internet providers.

In a meeting with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday, the Internet Association — which represents companies such as Google, Amazon and Netflix — said it maintains “vigorous support” for the agency's net neutrality policy, which moved to regulate broadband companies, such as Comcast and Charter, like their predecessors in the legacy telephone business. Those rules ban the blocking or slowing of websites, and also prohibited Internet service providers from charging websites special fees for displaying them on consumers' devices.

“Existing net neutrality rules should be enforced and kept intact,” the Internet Association wrote in a follow-up transparency filing.

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Pai has been consulting with industry groups on a proposal to repeal the FCC's rules, seeking voluntary promises by Internet providers not to block or slow sites rather than imposing preemptive regulations to ensure that they comply. Beyond cutting off a source of potential revenue, broadband industry advocates say, the rules have slowed the pace at which providers build out their networks and upgrade speeds.

Should Pai move forward with his plan, it would trigger a months-long process to solicit public feedback. If the last go-round on net neutrality is any indication, there could be a high-profile campaign by both sides to shape the outcome. But with a 2-1 Republican majority at the FCC, and GOP control of Congress and the White House, Pai's path to rolling back the FCC's net neutrality rules seems clear for now.

The FCC's regulations were pushed through in 2015 by a Democratic majority. They took the dramatic step of classifying Internet providers as “common carriers” under the agency's congressional charter, giving the FCC greater authority to impose bans on carriers' business practices. Although the industry sued to have the rules overturned, a federal appeals court later upheld the regulations. Broadband providers have asked the court to rehear the case, but such a step may no longer be necessary if Pai successfully rewrites the rules to suit the industry, experts say.

Some policymakers have pushed for legislation from Congress that could settle the debate once and for all. But Democrats are unwilling to come to the negotiating table unless they receive assurances that the bill would allow the FCC to continue writing rules for Internet providers in the future. Republican opposition to the net neutrality rules revolves around this issue; conservatives fear that the agency could use its powers to directly regulate the price of broadband or suppress investment in high-speed networks, analysts have said.

Pai's effort to roll back the FCC's treatment of Internet providers as common carriers comes amid a broader swipe at the previous FCC's tech policies. He has taken steps to prevent smaller Internet providers from selling low-cost broadband to the poor, as well as to reverse a proposal that would have lifted a ban on in-flight cellphone use.