FCC Strikes Down Net Neutrality

3-2 vote pulls back regulations stopping broadband providers from slowing down access to certain sites

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After months of speculation — and widespread resistance from Americans on both the left and the right — the Federal Communications Commission followed through on pulling back net neutrality on Thursday, voting to undo Obama-era regulations that barred internet service providers from speeding up or slowing down access to certain websites.

Spearheaded by Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney, the “Restoring Internet Freedom” proposal passed along party lines — after a brief security evacuation — with Pai and the FCC’s two Republican commissioners, Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, voting to undo net neutrality rules put in place in 2015. Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voted against the measure.

The decision is a deregulatory boon for telecom giants like Verizon and AT&T, allowing companies to block or “throttle” access to competitors. Thursday’s vote strikes a blow to 2015’s  “Open Internet” ruling, which classified broadband providers as “common carriers” — essentially making them public utilities. This designation barred ISPs from blocking access to particular sites and apps, as well as creating paid “fast lanes” to reach sites.

In his opening remarks, Commissioner Carr pushed back on concerns broadband providers will now run wild. “Market forces,” “powerful legal chess,” and federal law will prevent ISPs from “unfair business practices,” said Carr.

Rosenworcel dissented, saying the FCC would be on the “wrong side of history” by erasing net neutrality. “The FCC’s own data shows broadband markets are not competitive,” said Rosenworcel. “Half the households in this country have no choice of broadband provider. So if your broadband provider is blocking websites, you have no recourse. You have no place to go.”

Under the FCC’s new rules, companies like Verizon — which owns Yahoo — would be allowed to slow down or block access to Google, as long as it discloses its decision. Opponents of Pai’s decision argue this gives too much power to a select few ISPs and hurts consumers, who could see price hikes; those in favor say the Federal Trade Commission, which the FCC will cede power to, will be able to tackle companies that act anti-competitively. Pai has also argued the 2015 rules have stymied internet investment — a claim that is iffy, at best.

“Look–perhaps certain companies support saddling broadband providers with heavy-handed regulations because those rules work to their economic advantage.  I don’t blame them for taking that position,” said Pai in his statement.  “And I’m not saying that these same rules should be slapped on them too.  What I am saying is that the government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers in the Internet economy.  We should have a level playing field and let consumers decide who prevails.”

Streaming services like Netflix could also face new roadblocks following the FCC’s decision. ISPs now have a “big stick” to negotiate with Netflix and YouTube — which combine for 70 percent of peak internet traffic in North America — on broadband usage. This can lead to higher costs for both consumers and the streaming services while derailing startups from entering the market.

The vote was met with instant backlash, including from the American Civil Liberties Union and Writer’s Guild West — which said, “the Internet should be decided by a few powerful gatekeepers whose monopoly control over Internet access allows them to decide what content reaches viewers.”

Leading up to Thursday, an overwhelming majority of U.S. consumers didn’t support changing net neutrality. A recent University of Maryland study found 83 percent of Americans — including three out of four Republicans — were against lifting the 2015 rules. A record near-22 million comments were submitted to the FCC over the summer, with 60 percent pushing back against plans to repeal.