Newly appointed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair, Ajit Pai, is wasting no time unraveling former President Barack Obama’s FCC legacy that had worked to bolster the commission’s commitment to ensuring a free and open Internet, a principle known as net neutrality*. Instead, Pai is seeking to weaken this principle on May 18, when the FCC is set to vote whether or not to reduce federal oversight for Internet Service Providers or ISPs (i.e. Comcast, Verizon, TimeWarner, etc.) regarding their customers’ ability to freely communicate online.
“A vote to reduce federal oversight will be contradictory to the US government's commitment to net neutrality and equal access to the Internet for all, says Margaux Ewen, Advocacy and Communications Director for RSF North America. It would allow ISPs to control Internet traffic, rerouting people to the sites and search engines they own. This decision therefore has enormous consequences for the free flow of information and the plurality of voices online. The neutrality principle has made the Internet an open, creative and free space, but this is already under threat from the world's authoritarian states, led by China and Iran. It would be disastrous if the United States were to give it up as well."
To ensure net neutrality, the US government must guarantee equal access to the Internet, regardless of which subscription people are using. If this principle is threatened, ISPs could for example, decide to limit the broadband speed allocated to certain users – especially, of course, if they have opted for a cheaper Internet plan. For example, an ISP could decide to slow down the Internet speed of one search engine, i.e. Google, in favor of another search engine, i.e. Bing, because that ISP has a financial stake in promoting Bing over Google. This would impact both news providers and the broader public and make it harder to access a diversity of sources of information on the web.
Gus Rossi, Global Policy Director for Public Knowledge, a not for profit organization that promotes freedom of expression and open Internet, told RSF why regulation under Title II is essential for Internet freedom: "the Internet is not open and borderless by an act of god, it’s a political and social construction. It’s about consumer rights, rights as a consumer to get the whole Internet, not a piece that my Internet provider thinks I should access.”
In addition to advocacy groups, a large number of telecommunications companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter, to name a few, have already publicly denounced Pai’s plans to roll back net neutrality.
A Step Backwards
ISPs are currently regulated under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, but only since very recently. In 2010 the FCC adopted the Open Internet Order, intended to “preserve the Internet as an open platform enabling consumer choice, freedom of expression, end-user control, competition, and the freedom to innovate without permission.” The Order codified three rules for broadband providers under Title I of the Communications Act of 1934: one mandating transparency, one prohibiting the blocking of “lawful content, applications, services, or non- harmful devices” unless for the purposes of reasonable network management, and one prohibiting discrimination in the transmission of lawful Internet traffic.
ISPs felt these net neutrality rules were inconvenient and in 2014, telecommunications conglomerate Verizon, Pai’s former employer, sued the FCC alleging it did not have enough authority to enforce them. A court ultimately ruled the FCC could not apply anti-blocking and nondiscrimination provisions to broadband providers without classifying them as “common carriers,” subject to Title II of the Communications Act, allowing for broader regulatory authority.
The FCC did precisely that by adopting the 2015 Open Internet Order, classifying broadband as a regulated public utility under Title II, thereby allowing for ISPs to be subject to robust net neutrality rules along with broader government oversight.
A free and open Internet: an abstract idea?
This is the very essence of what Pai wants to reverse on May 18. Should this come to pass, a free and open Internet could become more an abstract idea than a reality.
Since his appointment as FCC chairman in January , Pai has already taken steps to reduce Internet access, notably by removing nine companies from a government program called Lifeline, which provided discounted phone and Internet services for those in low-income communities. According to the Pew Research Center, forty percent of all families with school-age children in the United States do not have access to a high-speed Internet connection at home.
One of President Trump’s first executive decisions was naming Pai as FCC chairman. Formerly associate general counsel for Verizon, Pai most recently served as one of the FCC’s 5 commissioners under the Obama administration. While in that role he spent much of his time opposing then President Obama’s views on consumer-friendly regulations and diversifying media ownership. Pai has stated he wants to “return to the light-touch regulatory framework that served our nation so well during the Clinton administration, Bush administration, and the first six years of the Obama administration.”
* Merriam Webster defines net neutrality as the idea, principle, or requirement that Internet service providers should or must treat all Internet data as the same regardless of its kind, source, or destination.
The US ranks 43 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index after falling 2 places in 2016.
Image credit: KAREN BLEIER / AFP