Federal regulators will move to roll back one of the Obama administration's signature Internet policies this week, launching a process to repeal the government's net neutrality rules that currently regulate how Internet providers may treat websites and their own customers.
The vote on Thursday, led by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, will kick off consideration of a proposal to relax regulations on companies such as Comcast and AT&T.
If approved by the 2-1 Republican-majority commission, it will be a significant step for the broadband industry as it seeks more leeway under government rules to develop new business models. For consumer advocates and tech companies, it will be a setback; those groups argue that looser regulations won't prevent those business models from harming Internet users and website owners.
“The question that we at the FCC must answer is what policies will give the American people what they want,” Pai said in a speech on net neutrality last month in Washington. The FCC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The current rules force Internet providers to behave much like their cousins in the legacy telephone business. Under the FCC's net neutrality policy, providers cannot block or slow down consumers' Internet traffic, or charge websites a fee in order to be displayed on consumers' screens. The net neutrality rules also empower the FCC to investigate ISP practices that risk harming competition. Internet providers have chafed at the stricter rules governing phone service, which they say were written for a bygone era.
Pai's effort to roll back the rules has led to a highly politicized debate. Underlying it is a complex policy decision with major implications for the future of the Web.
As Internet service has become a basic commodity for many Americans, providers are realizing that offering access to the Web is no longer as lucrative as it once was. To shore up their margins, many network operators such as AT&T and Verizon have sought to acquire media companies. Their vast troves of TV shows, movies and online content offer ISPs an opportunity to sell advertising and collect behavioral data that can be traded to other marketers.
The fear among consumer groups is that providers may privilege their own content to the detriment of new start-ups or other competing companies.
On Wednesday, cable companies took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post saying the industry is committed to not blocking or slowing Internet content. Earlier, Verizon had argued in a video that it was not opposed to net neutrality but simply to the FCC's 2015 decision to regulate its broadband business using rules that had historically applied to phone service.
Critics of the broadband industry say that is a distinction without a difference, and that the stakes are much higher than the mere blocking of websites.
“Just because they use the words — the actions you take speak louder than anything else,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), whose district includes many tech companies. “And it's certainly their prerogative to go to court [against the FCC], but they have never — in capital letters — have never been for net neutrality.”
Eshoo was referring to a lawsuit by Internet providers to overturn the rules — a separate move from Pai's own deregulatory proposal — that could soon wind up at the Supreme Court.
But Pai and many Internet providers argue that swifter action is necessary because the rules are onerous and discourage companies from spending money on their networks to provide faster and better service.
In recent weeks, lobbyists on both sides of the issue have published dueling studies showing how the commission's regulation, passed by a Democratic majority in 2015, has affected broadband network investment.
“The current FCC rules are working for consumers, and the protections need to be kept intact,” said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, a trade group representing tech companies such as Google and Facebook. On Wednesday, the group released a report showing that among all publicly traded Internet providers, investment in broadband networks rose after the FCC's rules went into effect.
The report takes aim at industry-supported findings showing that among the 12 biggest Internet providers, investment slowed somewhat over the same period.
The politicized battle over investment statistics mirrors a war of words playing out in the FCC's online comment system, where supporters and opponents of the agency's rules are fighting for dominance. Groups allied with the broadband industry have been flooding the FCC with automated letters signed, in some cases, by people who did not provide their consent or who do not exist, according to the Verge and other reports. Supporters of the net neutrality rules have slammed the FCC chairman with racist comments and remarks calling for Pai's death. The partisan fight has gained even more prominence in recent weeks after comedian John Oliver urged supporters of the regulation to submit comments to the agency.
Pai sought to lower the temperature of debate Saturday by filming a video of himself reading and responding aloud to “mean tweets” sent in his direction, a stab at humor modeled after a segment popularized by late-night show host Jimmy Kimmel. But the move, produced in partnership with the conservative news outlet IJR, quickly drew backlash. As of Wednesday afternoon, the video had more than 2,500 thumbs-down votes on YouTube to 61 thumbs-up votes.