The FCC’s net neutrality rules are returning to the crosshairs of Republicans. Two of the remaining FCC commissioners, both members of the GOP, have promised internet service providers (ISPs) lobbying groups they will begin gutting net neutrality rules “as soon as possible.”
FCC chairmen Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly sent a joint letter to the telecom industry’s five largest lobbying groups this week promising to reverse legislation meant to protect consumers from internet speed throttling:
As you know, we dissented from the Commission’s February 2015 Net Neutrality decision, including the Order’s imposition of unnecessary and unjustified burdens on providers ... we will seek to revisit those particular requirements, and the Title II Net Neutrality proceeding more broadly, as soon as possible.
The letter essentially serves as a warning to net neutrality supporters. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, is set to leave office when Donald Trump takes office on January 20. Wheeler’s departure will significantly expose the net neutrality rules passed last year with only Democratic votes.
Pai and O’Reilly will have 2-1 Republican majority after Wheeler’s departure. Donald Trump will then nominate two new members to the FCC after taking the presidency, and his nominations will be confirmed by the Senate. The process typically takes several months to complete, which means Pai and O’Reilly will have months to oversee federal rule-making.
Of course, rolling back net neutrality rules isn’t going to be easy for the remaining Republican commissioners. It’s expected to be a long and drawn out process that will likely face bureaucratic obstacles every step of the way, including a commenting period during which the media and US citizens can voice their opinion to the FCC. During one of the last commenting periods, the FCC’s website was crippled by the influx of responses, forcing the commission to extend the deadline.
In their letter to telecoms, Pai and O’Rielly focused much of their attention on shielding small businesses from parts of the net neutrality rules that require ISPs to report network performance metrics (like speed, delays, and dropped requests). Their comments were a direct response to a letter sent to the FCC from the five major telecom lobbying groups who argued that reporting network performance requires expensive equipment and hurts business.
The biggest change promised by the FCC commissioners, however, is the repeal of the Title II net neutrality order that prohibits ISPs from blocking or throttling web traffic. The Title II order is by far the most controversial part of the net neutrality rules and ensures that ISPs can’t charge people more money for visiting websites like Netflix or YouTube. If revoked, it would significantly change how people pay for and use the internet.
At this point, net neutrality rules are at a high risk of being walked back. Even Chairman Wheeler admits as much, saying recently, “I hope that if there is legislation, that it is net neutrality in more than name.” Now, it’s really just a question of whether the FCC is going to create a new, weaker set of rules or revoke net neutrality regulation altogether.