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FCC announces plan to reverse Title II net neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission is cracking open the net neutrality debate again with a proposal to undo the 2015 rules that implemented net neutrality using Title II classification.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai called the rules “heavy handed” and said their implementation was “all about politics.” He argued that they hurt investment and said that small internet providers don’t have “the means or the margins” to withstand the regulatory onslaught.

“Earlier today I shared with my fellow commissioners a proposal to reverse the mistake of Title II and return to the light touch framework that served us so well during the Clinton Administration, Bush administration, and first six years of the Obama administration,” Pai said today.

His proposal will reclassify internet providers as Title I information services, end rules that allow the commission to evolve the rules to fit future practices, and open questions about what to do with the key no blocking and throttling rules that were implemented in 2015.

Pai said the full text of his net neutrality proposal would be published tomorrow afternoon. It’ll be voted on by the FCC on at a meeting on May 18th. From there, months of debate will follow as the item is opened up for public comment. The commission will then revise its rules based on the feedback its received before taking a final vote to enact them.

Strong net neutrality rules were passed in 2015 and have been in place for about two years. Those rules reclassified internet providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which subject them to tough, utility-style regulation.

While the commission didn’t apply many of the traditional utility restrictions — like pricing regulations — the classification was meant to ensure that internet providers would be subject to careful oversight.

The commission mandated that internet providers follow a few key rules: no blocking of sites and apps, no throttling the speed of sites and apps, and no paid fast lanes. The rules applied to both wired and wireless internet providers and also gave the commission over “interconnect” agreements between internet providers and big content companies like Netflix.

Internet providers have of course been unhappy about this, as they’d rather not have the FCC looking over their shoulder and limiting what they’re able to do with their network. They sued to overturn the rules, but so far the rules have been held up in court.

Republicans have also been unhappy with the rules, and it’s been clear since Trump was elected that they’d take a shot at reversing them. They view the existing net neutrality rules as heavy handed and believe they limit innovation from internet providers.

One issue they’ve pointed to in particular is investment in broadband networks. There was a slight dip in investment the year net neutrality rules were passed, and Republicans have pointed to that as evidence that these are damaging policies.

During his speech today, Pai claimed Title II classification hurt “low income, rural, and urban neighborhoods” the most and had the effect of “accelerating the practice of digital redlining,” because these neighborhoods would be the first areas cut when internet providers cut back their spending.

While network investment is an important metric for the FCC to track — it’s responsible for improving access to broadband — it’s hardly the only metric to track how much impact the rules have had. At the end of the day, internet providers are still doing well and have seen their stock prices rise, which suggest investors aren’t as devastated by net neutrality as they let on.

Republicans and internet providers continue to order that they aren’t actually against net neutrality, they’re just against the Title II classification. While it’s possible to have net neutrality without Title II — common carrier rules are just a way to go about implementing them — the argument gets a lot less convincing when you actually look at what they’re proposing as an alternative.

Their alternative seems to be net neutrality rules that aren’t backed up by close regulatory oversight. That means internet providers have a lot more leeway to skirt the rules.

In his final speech as FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, who oversaw the passing of the 2015 rules, laid out a basic test by which he said we could tell if a net neutrality proposal offered true net neutrality. A proposal had to offer three things, he said: an agency with full authority to protect consumers, rules that can evolve to fit new devices and networks, and consistent guidelines that make it clear what behavior is and isn’t appropriate.

“Passing legislation or adopting regulations without these key provisions and calling it net neutrality would be false advertising,” Wheeler said at the time.

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