With its final meeting of the year less than a month away, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to reveal the latest details of a plan to roll back the government's net neutrality regulations this week. The result could reshape the entire digital ecosystem by giving Internet providers more control over what their customers can see and access online and how quickly they can do it.
Under current rules, broadband companies such as Verizon and Comcast must treat all websites and online services equally. Verizon, for instance, isn't allowed to deliver content from Yahoo, which it owns, to consumers any faster than it delivers competing content from Google. It also isn't permitted to actively slow down or block Google services.
But the FCC is likely to change all that, analysts say, relaxing the Obama-era rules that required providers to behave like legacy telecom companies who must carry all phone calls on a nondiscriminatory basis. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai “will try to shrink the footprint of the rules,” said Daniel Berninger, a telecom engineer who has opposed the regulations. The FCC declined to comment.
The FCC typically releases the agenda for its monthly open meetings three weeks in advance, giving the public a look at the items the agency is expected to consider. Under Pai, a critic of the current net neutrality rules, the regulatory body has also released the full texts of its proposed resolutions ahead of its meetings.
The FCC's deregulatory push
In earlier drafts of the net neutrality proposal, Pai has asked whether the agency should be involved in regulating Internet providers at all. “We … propose to relinquish any authority over Internet traffic exchange,” read the FCC's initial proposal, which was released in May.
Pai, a Republican, has argued that the regulations discourage Internet providers from investing in upgrades to their infrastructure and that the rules are an example of government overreach.
But supporters of the rules say they are a necessary consumer protection as Internet providers such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have sought to control a growing chunk of the country's media and information economies. Since 2010, the three firms have explored or completed purchases of major media entities, such as NBC Universal, Yahoo and Time Warner, respectively.
Net neutrality rules “recognize the importance of maintaining a level playing field for all Internet content — regardless of the creator or owner — to be enjoyed by all users, regardless of their Internet provider,” wrote the mayors of 65 cities in a recent letter to Pai.
This week's anticipated update to Pai's proposal comes after months of public debate, including a controversy this summer over fraudulent comments filed in the agency's docket by automated systems that, according to critics, threatened to skew the policymaking process. Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic FCC commissioner, said the bot-driven filings were cause for several public hearings on the matter before any net neutrality vote.
“We must have direct public input before we consider any net neutrality policy that will have a direct impact on our families, our communities, and our economy,” Rosenworcel said Monday in a statement to The Washington Post.
What the rollback could mean for future regulation
Many of the specifics of Pai's plan remain unclear, but a central part of the effort will involve undoing the FCC's decision to declare Internet providers as telecommunications service providers. The legal designation allowed the FCC to more strictly regulate broadband firms than when the companies were known merely as providers of an “information service.”
Pai's deregulatory proposal will probably reverse this decision, according to analysts, setting off a chain of consequences for the industry and how it is regulated. If the move is approved — and it probably will be, given that Republicans control three of the FCC's five seats — responsibility for regulating Internet providers could flow away from the FCC and toward the Federal Trade Commission, which is charged with protecting consumers from unfair and deceptive business practices.
Some consumer groups fear that leaving net neutrality to the FTC could weaken enforcement, as the FTC's power in that area may be limited to policing truth in advertising and other commitments that Internet providers make to the public.
“The FTC is not equipped, and lacks jurisdiction, to resolve issues with Internet service providers,” the National Hispanic Media Coalition wrote in a regulatory filing last summer.
The FCC proposal does not require President Trump’s signature, but Trump criticized the net neutrality regulations during his campaign as a “top-down power grab” by the government. Republican lawmakers have also criticized the FCC rules supporting net neutrality, with some, such as Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), calling for congressional legislation to supersede the regulations.
Creating political pressure on Democrats to negotiate a legislative compromise is a key aspect of Pai's proposal, according to people familiar with the FCC’s thinking. Thus far, Democrats have resisted discussing any net neutrality legislation that could replace the current FCC rules. But with the agency poised to weaken the regulations substantially, Republicans at the FCC hope to create a policy vacuum that could bring Democrats to the bargaining table in Congress, the people said.