The FCC has begun the process of dismantling net neutrality and its classification of ISPs as common carriers under Title II. The move has been expected for months; the current head of the FCC, Ajit Pai, strongly opposed any attempt to ensure that Internet traffic was treated equally. He’s also implied that he believes allowing ISPs to throttle certain web traffic will somehow benefit consumers when they are required to pay more to receive the same service they do now.
To be precise, Pai has asked if the no-throttling rule “prevent[s] providers from offering broadband Internet access service with differentiated prioritization that benefits consumers? Does the no-throttling rule harm latency-sensitive applications and content?”
The classification of ISPs under Title II was a contentious decision that the industry ultimately forced upon itself. The FCC’s original net neutrality classifications were fairly weak, but still opposed by companies like Verizon, which took the FCC to court. The court ruled that the FCC couldn’t regulate paid prioritization under Section 706 of the Communications Act, but that it could classify ISPs as common carriers and require them to abide by net neutrality requirements — specifically, the requirement that they wouldn’t prioritize some traffic over others, creating Internet “fast” lanes for premium subscribers and slow lanes for everyone else.
Pai also wants to eliminate conduct standards imposed by the FCC under its previous chairman, Tom Wheeler. These standards gave the FCC the freedom to judge whether ISPs had harmed consumers with certain practices on a case-by-case basis, and imposed requirements that ISP pricing and consumer practices be both “just” and “reasonable. The industry, needless to say, did not support such rules.
Much of Pai’s claims have been empirically disproven. One of his favorite talking points is that regulating ISPs under Title II would lead to lower network investment as this burdensome regulation caused companies to withdraw from the market. As Ars Technica reported several days ago, not one ISP in the United States has told its investors that net neutrality was any concern or threat to the ongoing expansion of their networks or business cycles.
After the FCC classified ISPs as common carriers, AT&T told investors it would spend more on fiber installations in 2016 than it did in 2015. Comcast’s Chief Financial Officer admitted that its concerns about Title II regulation were based on what it could mean, not what the FCC actually did. Charter’s CEO is on record as saying “Title II, it didn’t really hurt us; it hasn’t hurt us.” And Altice (parent company of Cablevision and Suddenlink) has announced it will begin deploying fiber-to-the-home and upgrading its broadband networks throughout 2017.
Pai has offered no evidence to support his claims that Title II classification or net neutrality result in lower levels of business investment. Polls have shown that the American people generally support net neutrality, including Republican voters. If these rules are revoked, other requirements — including rules that mandated clear billing practices, resolved interconnection disputes (remember those?) and allowed customers and other businesses to file complaints about unjust and unreasonable conduct by ISPs will be revoked as well.
Spambots have hijacked the current comment period, with hundreds of thousands of identical anti-net neutrality comments submitted on behalf of individuals whose personal data was stolen in recent databases breaches. With this spam removed, comments have tended to favor net neutrality overall.
Congress, in response to consumer concerns about ISP service, the need for net neutrality, and the extremely limited broadband choices much of the country faces has promised to take up the issue with robust legislation. Just kidding. Actually, Senate Republicans have introduced a bill known as the Restoring Internet Freedom Act, which would make it illegal for the FCC to ever assert Title II authority to regulate the internet again.