On Thursday public officials, activists, and content producers vowed to hit Control-Alt-Delete on the Federal Communications Commission’s vote Thursday to end “net neutrality” rules intended to make sure that all internet traffic is treated equally.
The FCC’s party-line 3-2 vote after a lengthy and fractious public comment period had long been expected, and when it came Thursday, defenders of the Obama-era rules were already swinging into action.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman immediately said he would lead a multistate lawsuit to roll back the vote. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he would also sue.
“Allowing internet service providers to discriminate based on content undermines a free and open internet,”
Ferguson said in a statement.
Schneiderman was already investigating as many as 2 million fake public comments that he says were submitted to the FCC during the public comment process. By going ahead with the vote, he said in a statement, the agency had made
“a mockery of government integrity” and was rewarding “the very perpetrators who scammed the system to advance their own agenda.”
Net neutrality rules treat the internet as a utility, ensuring that internet service providers, or ISPs, can’t charge different rates based on how much an entity is willing to pay. Theoretically, elimination of the rules paves the way for ISPs to create fast lanes and slow lanes and to block or throttle certain websites.
The major ISPs, including Comcast, the nation’s biggest service provider, have promised not to favor specific customers. (Comcast is part of Comcast NBCUniversal, the owner of NBC News.)
David L. Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive vice president, said Thursday that ISPs wanted the rules rescinded not so they could prioritize traffic from preferred content providers but because regulation of the internet had become politicized. He said the industry had been
“trapped in a cycle of regulatory ping pong” at the “whim of the party in power.”
“We should stop the litigation and legislative threats by the party not in control of the FCC,”
Cohen said, calling for bipartisan legislation to protect both the internet and consumers.
Chrissy Harbin, vice president of external affairs for Americans For Prosperity, an activist group funded by the conservative powerhouses Charles and David Koch, said the FCC’s vote would “Rid the internet of government meddling [and] will foster an online environment that spurs new advancement, competition, and consumer choice.”
Few others involved in the debate were buying that.
Burt Lum, an owner of Hawaii Open Data, a nonprofit advocacy group in Honolulu, pointed out that big ISPs like Comcast and Verizon are also among the biggest content providers online.
“They’ll have a lot of content, so they’ll enable their content to go on the faster pipe,” Lum told NBC affiliate KHNL.
“I don’t see how this is beneficial to the general public,” said Carla White, director of Gratitude Labs, an app design company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“All my classes are online. All my team is online. Everything I do is based on streaming data over the internet,” White told NBC affiliate KDLT. “As a small business owner, it’s definitely a concern, because they can throttle or discriminate against certain content. They say they won’t, but they absolutely have the tools to do it.”
Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Report, called the vote “a big loss for consumers” that would “inevitably take the battle over net neutrality back to the courtroom and Congress.”
“Without these rules, your internet provider can charge a toll for any website it chooses,” Schwantes said. “The biggest companies can most likely afford these new costs, but smaller companies could be left out in the cold, and that fundamentally changes the level playing field of the internet as we’ve known it.”
Amanda Seales, who plays Tiffany DuBois on the HBO series “Insecure,” said the internet is supposed to allow people “to have that space to speak.”
“The problem is that when we start putting dollar signs on that, we are now limiting people from having the opportunity to not only give information but also to receive information,” she said at a rally Thursday outside FCC headquarters in Washington.
Meanwhile, the mayors of more than 50 U.S. cities said in a letter opposing the FCC’s decision that their cities counted on the free access to the internet to drive economic growth and to provide government services.
“Critical to our communities’ reliance on the internet is the confidence that our use of the Internet is not subject to the whims, discretion, or economic incentives of gatekeeper service providers to control or manipulate the experience of Internet users,” they wrote.
Signers included the mayors of some of the nation’s biggest cities — including Bill de Blasio of New York, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and Marty Walsh of Boston — along with Sam Liccardo of San Jose, California, in Silicon Valley, and Jenny Durkan of Seattle, home to Amazon.com.
Amazon and many of the biggest Silicon Valley giants rallied support to preserve the net neutrality rules, arguing that without them, ISPs could become the gatekeepers of information and at consumers’ expense
INTERNET SERVICES WON’T BE SAME WITHOUT NET NEUTRALITY
Both Rosenworcel and Clyburn also criticized the FCC’s handling of the public comment period that proceeded this vote, saying that the administration acted inappropriately in ignoring millions of voices in support of net neutrality. “It is abundantly clear why we see so much bad process with this item: because the fix was already in,” Clyburn said. Rosenworcel said the commission showed a “cavalier disregard” for the public and a “contempt” for citizens speaking up.
The vote comes after a contentious and messy public comment period. After opening the proposal up for feedback earlier this year, the commission received a record-breaking 22 million comments. But many of those comments were spam — 7.5 million, according to the commission — and the FCC has refused to help investigations into what happened. The commission was also quiet about website problems that caused its comment form to crash briefly in May.
THE FCC CAN EXPECT A LAWSUIT
Those comments are likely to play a role in whatever lawsuit hits following this vote. Net neutrality supporters are almost certain to sue the commission in an attempt to invalidate this proceeding and restore the 2015 net neutrality rules. While the commission is allowed to change its mind, it isn’t allowed to change rules for “arbitrary and capricious” reasons. In court, the FCC will have to prove that enough has changed since 2015, and that there’s enough evidence in the record of comments, to back up the conclusion that it ought to revoke net neutrality.