The US Federal Communications Commission next month is planning a vote to kill Obama-era rules demanding fair treatment of web traffic and may decide to vacate the regulations altogether, according to people familiar with the plans. The move would reignite a years-long debate that has seen Republicans and broadband providers seeking to eliminate the rules, while Democrats and technology companies support them. The regulations passed in 2015 bar broadband providers such as AT&T Inc and Comcast Corp from interfering with web traffic sent by Google, Facebook Inc and others.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, chosen by President Donald Trump, in April proposed gutting the rules and asked for public reaction. The agency has taken in more than 22 million comments on the matter. Pai plans to seek a vote in December, said two people who asked not to be identified because the matter hasn’t been made public. As the head of a Republican majority, he is likely to win a vote on whatever he proposes.
One of the people said Pai may call for vacating the rules except for portions that mandate internet service providers inform customers about their practices – one of the more severe options that would please broadband providers. They argue the FCC’s rules aren’t needed and discourage investment, in part because they subject companies to complex and unpredictable regulations.
Democrats and technology companies say the rules are needed to make sure telecommunications providers don’t favor business partners or harm rivals. The agency declined to comment on the timing of a vote. “We don’t have anything to report at this point,” said Tina Pelkey, a spokeswoman for the commission. Pai in April proposed that the FCC end the designation of broadband companies as common carriers. That would remove the legal authority that underpins the net neutrality rules.
Pai could also choose not to find authority in the FCC’s powers to promote broadband. That would leave the rules without an apparent legal footing, leading in turn to a conclusion the agency lacks authority even to issue revised, less-stringent regulations. The April proposal also asked the agency to consider lifting bans on blocking web traffic or on building “fast lanes” that favor those willing to pay more for faster service.
News of the December vote drew immediate reactions. “Abandoning bipartisan net neutrality principles threatens to kill the streaming revolution and will hurt businesses, large and small, who are migrating to the cloud at record speeds,” said Chip Pickering, chief executive officer of the Incompas trade group with members including online shopping giant Amazon.com Inc and video streamer Netflix Inc.
“Chairman Pai’s affection for AT&T and Comcast holds great political risk for President Trump and the entire Republican Party,” Pickering said in an emailed statement. “No one wants to see the internet turned into cable and have to pay more for streaming services they love.” Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, part of the FCC’s Democratic minority, said the agency is headed down a “destructive path” that doesn’t help consumers.
“What consumers want is access to a free and open internet without fear of being throttled or assessed a toll by their broadband service provider,” Clyburn said in an emailed statement. The current regulations forbid broadband providers from blocking or slowing web traffic, or from charging higher fees in return for quicker passage over their networks.
Supporters of the rules say they are needed to keep network owners from unfairly squelching rivals and discouraging web startups. Critics say the rules discourage investment while exposing companies to a threat of heavier regulation including pricing mandates, and that marketplace competition will discipline broadband providers. The regulation survived a court challenge from broadband providers last year.
Trump’s White House has opposed the rules. In July, as Pai’s critics protested, a White House spokesman said the administration “supports the FCC’s efforts to roll back burdensome, monopoly-era regulations.”