FCC Moves Forward on Rolling Back Title II Net Neutrality

Ajit Pai - FICCI Frames 2014 - Getty-H 2017
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The Federal Communications Commission took the expected step on Thursday of moving forward on a proposal to reverse the agency's 2015 decision to classify broadband as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act. By a 2-1 vote, the commissioners have now triggered a months-long process that could ultimately lift the statutory underpinning for its "open internet" rules — net neutrality principles prohibiting ISPs from blocking, throttling and prioritizing traffic.

During the Obama Administration, prior chairman Tom Wheeler opted for Title II regulation upon a federal appellate court's decision that the FCC had exceeded its authority in issuing rules intended to require broadband providers like AT&T and Verizon to treat internet traffic equally.

Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by Donald Trump to lead the independent agency, has argued that the regulations have hampered infrastructure investment and wishes to return to what he calls the "successful light-touch framework under Title I," whereby broadband is classified as an information service.

Critics have been skeptical about the evidence for dampened infrastructure investment under Title II and worry that the new proposal will lead ISPs to exact a toll from content companies to pass along traffic on equal footing. HBO's John Oliver has led the charge on his late-night show and directed viewers to send in comments. In the past two weeks, the FCC has been flooded with more than 1.5 million comments about net neutrality. Over the next three months, before the next vote at the agency, expect more.

Ultimately, the rule-making could wind up in court, although lawmakers may seek to side-step a legal challenge by amending the Communications Act.

Incompas — a tech trade group whose membership includes Amazon, Facebook, Netflix and Twitter — lambasted today's news, saying, "The FCC’s love affair with a few large ISPs is going to be a heartbreaker for consumers, small businesses and streaming services."

The Writers Guild of America, West, also was critical.

"The claim that every attempt to protect true free-market competition from monopoly control is necessarily a regulatory attack on the free market is pure Orwellian demagoguery," the guild said in a statement.

David L. Cohen, senior vp and chief diversity officer at Comcast, cheered the development. On the company's blog, he wrote, "We applaud Chairman Pai and Commissioner O’Rielly for remaining focused on creating a light touch regulatory environment that is pro-consumer, pro-investment, and pro-innovation, especially with the present partisan political rhetoric and debate."