Donald Trump’s newly installed media and telecoms regulator moved to repeal Obama-era rules aimed at protecting an open internet on Thursday, the most serious move to date in what looks set to be a hard fight over the future of the internet.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), led by chairman Ajit Pai, voted two to one to start the formal process of dismantling “net neutrality” rules put in place in 2015.
Those rules banned internet service providers (ISPs) from creating fast lanes (or slow lanes) that could favour one service over another and potentially allow them to choose winners and losers online. Critics say the rules could kill a new or existing streaming service and that free speech would be at the mercy of broadband providers.
“Today’s notice is the start of a new chapter in the public discussion about how we can best maintain a free and open internet while making sure that ISPs have strong incentives to bring next-generation networks and services to all Americans,” said Pai.
But the Writers Guild of America called the move a “war on the open internet”.
The Obama-era ruling came after a massive campaign by online activists who successfully saw off the lobbying might of the US’s largest cable companies. A similar battle will now ensue as the month’s long process of reviewing the rules begins. At the end of the review a final FCC vote will decide the future of internet regulation; court challenges are inevitable whatever the result.
Gigi Sohn , distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law Policy and Counselor to former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, said: “Today the Trump FCC begins its dismantling of the internet rules that protect American consumers on behalf of the few huge companies that control their access to the internet. Net Neutrality rules ensure that consumers can control what they say and do online, but chairman Pai prefers to give that control instead to Comcast, ATT, Charter and Verizon. That is an outcome that no American wants regardless of party or ideology.”
After comedian Jon Oliver, a staunch defender of net neutrality, highlighted Pai’s intentions earlier this month, the FCC’s website crashed losing an unknown number of public comments on the potential repeal.
The regulator has claimed it was attacked by hackers but has yet to release any evidence supporting that claim. The FCC’s site also seems to have been flooded by fake, often identical, comments in support of repeal.
Fight for the Future, an internet activist group, has called for an investigation into the situation. “State attorneys general should immediate investigate whether people in their state were affected by this, and the FCC should immediately release any and all information that it has about who is submitting these fake comments,” said Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future.
Pai’s move was cheered by major broadband providers who have celebrated the new FCC chairman’s pledge to take a “weed whacker” to the net neutrality rules and replace them with “light touch” regulation. “We applaud chairman Pai and commissioner Michael O’Rielly for remaining focussed on creating light touch regulatory environment that is pro-consumer, pro-investment, and pro-innovation, especially with the present partisan political rhetoric and debate,” said David Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive vice-president.