Say Goodbye to Net Neutrality: Why FCC Protection of the Open Internet Is Over

Kristin McGaver, MJLST Guest Blogger

[Editor’s Note: Ms. McGaver’s blog topic serves as a nice preview for two articles being published in this Spring’s Issue 18.2, one on the FCC generally by researchers Brent Skorup and Joe Kane, and one on the Open Internet Order more specifically by MJLST Staffer Paul Gaus.]

Net neutrality is a complex issue at the forefront of many current online regulation debates. In these debates, it is often unclear what the concept of “net neutrality” actually entails, what parties and actors it affects, and how many different approaches to its regulation exist. Nevertheless, Ajit Pai—newly appointed chairman of the United States Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”)—thinks, “the issue is pretty simple.” Pai is openly opposed to net neutrality and has publicly expressed his intent not to enforce current FCC regulations pertaining to the issue with his recently acquired position of power. This is troubling to many net neutrality supporters. Open Internet advocates are rightfully concerned that Pai will hinder recent success for the advancement and protection of net neutrality achieved under former President Obama, resulting in the FCC’s 2015 “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet” Regulation. With Pai at the FCC helm, net neutrality policy in the United States (“US”) is noticeably in flux. Thus, even though official policies protecting net neutrality exist on the books, the circumstances surrounding their enforcement and longevity leave much gray area to be explored, chiseled out, and set into stone.

Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Yet, since 2003 when Tim Wu coined the term, scholars and commentators cannot agree on a standard definition since that very definition is at the base of a multi-layered over-arching debate. In the US, the most recent FCC articulation of net neutrality is defined by three principles—“no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioriti[z]ation.” These principles mean that ISPs should not be allowed to charge companies or websites higher rates for speedier connections or charge the user higher amounts for specific services. The new “bright-line” rules forbid ISPs from restricting access, tampering with Internet traffic, or favoring certain kinds of traffic via the use of “fast lanes.” Markedly, one thing the 2015 Regulation did not completely forbid is “zero-rating” or “the practice of allowing customers to consume content from certain platforms without it counting towards their data plan cap”—a practice many see as violating net neutrality. Even with this and other exceptions, the 2015 Regulation’s passing was not met without resistance: Republican Senator Ted Cruz from Texas tweeted that the 2015 Regulation was “Obamacare for the Internet.”

Additionally, net neutrality supporters and the FCC majority did not have long to bask in their success after the 2015 Regulation’s approval. The United States Telecom Association and Alamo Broadband quickly challenged it in a lawsuit. Because the new regulation re-classified ISPs as common carriers and therefore subject to the FCC’s authority, Telecom claimed that the FCC was overreaching, harming businesses, and impeding innovation in the field. Fortunately for the FCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the 2015 Regulation in a 2–to–1 decision.

Yet, the waves are far from settling for the FCC and net neutrality supporters in the US. Following the D.C. Circuit’s 2016 decision, American company AT&T and other members of the cable and telecom industry signaled an intent to continue the challenge, potentially all the way to the Supreme Court. More importantly, the lead dissenter to the 2015 Regulation is now chairman of the FCC. In his first few months as Chairman, Ajit Pai declined to comment on whether the FCC plans to enforce the 2015 Regulation. Pai’s “no comment” does not look promising for net neutrality or for those hoping the US will maintain its intent to protect the open Internet as was articulated in the 2015 Regulation.

Although the 2015 Regulation remains on the books, the likelihood that it is carefully enforced, or really enforced at all, is pretty low. This leaves a total lack of accountability for breaching ISPs. Achieving a policy that is not entirely spineless is admittedly complicated in the context of an Internet that is constantly evolving and a market that is increasingly dominated by just a few ISPs. But, effective policies are not impossible, as evidenced by success in the European Union and several of their member states in setting policies that protect and promote net neutrality. It is clear from these examples that effective net neutrality regulation in the online context requires setting, maintaining, and enforcing official articulations of policy. However, with a clear signal from the FCC chairman to back away from the enforcement of a set policy, it will be as if no regulation exists at all.

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