Net neutrality regulations are getting yet another remake.
The new head of the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday launched his long-expected campaign to undo the regulations adopted in 2015 under former President Barack Obama. Specifically, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to loosen the legal structure that placed Internet service providers under the strictest-ever oversight of the agency, in favor of a "light-touch regulator framework."
"Going forward, we cannot stick with regulations from the Great Depression that were meant to micromanage Ma Bell," Pai said in a speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. "Nothing about the Internet was broken in 2015."
Pai's plan so far lacks many specifics, but it marks the start of what's expected to be a new months-long debate. The FCC is expected to vote to formally begin the repeal process on May 18. After that, the agency would collect comments from the public and the stakeholders before crafting a detailed approach and scheduling another agency vote to adopt it.
All this means the FCC is beginning a new phase of one of its hottest, longest-running debates: How should the government regulate Internet service providers to ensure that they don't act as gatekeepers to Americans' equal and fair access to websites and Web services?
Over time, the FCC established so-called net neutrality principles that state that Internet providers shouldn't block or slow down any websites or apps (no blocking or discrimination) and shouldn't charge extra for faster loading (no paid prioritization). As this blogger once wrote, the term net neutrality "was so nerdy that it's been 're-branded' as Open Internet."
Over the years, the FCC has attempted several legal mechanisms to enforce these net neutrality principles. Three times, the attempts ended up challenged in court. The last attempt — after months of heated public debate — did gain full support from a U.S. appeals court in June 2016.
That approach is known as Title II reclassification. Adopted by the majority of Democrats who ran the FCC at the time, the regulations reclassified how the FCC treats Internet service providers — both wired and mobile — to put them in a similar bucket to traditional telephone companies, like utilities.
This dramatically expanded the FCC's authority over the Internet, which was praised by consumer advocacy groups. But cable and telecom companies such as AT&T and Comcast argue that this regulatory regime weighs on the industry, an outdated approach that dampens investment and innovation.
The FCC "decided to put the federal government at the center of the Internet," says Pai, who at the time was a dissenting Republican FCC commissioner. He was elevated to chair the agency by President Trump in January. Pai says the net neutrality rulemaking was political and, in fact, has harmed smaller broadband providers.
Pai's plan broadly is to undo the Title II back to a lighter-regulated Title I classification. (For the wonky: from utility-like "telecommunications services" to "information services.") AT&T, Comcast and other telecom and cable companies welcomed this effort, while adding that they do support "a free and open Internet" as well as the fundamental principles of net neutrality.
The Internet Association, which represents Web companies including Google and Netflix, said it will keep working to defend the existing rules from repeal. The group said they protect "consumers from ISPs looking to play gatekeeper or prioritize their own content at the expense of competition online."
The previous FCC effort to write net neutrality rules had drawn a record outpouring of more than 4 million public comments.