Two years ago, I warned that we were making a serious mistake,” Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed head of the Federal Communications Commission, said in a speech in Washington in April, referring to net-neutrality rules that were enacted under Obama. “It’s basic economics,” he continued. “The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.” This week, Pai will move to put that theory to the test, rolling out plans to dismantle prohibitions that currently prevent Internet service providers from charging companies for faster access or from slowing down or speeding up services like Netflix or YouTube. According to The Wall Street Journal, the F.C.C. will unveil its proposal this week, less than three months after the end of a public feedback period that generated 22 million comments.
Current net-neutrality rules, including the F.C.C.’s Open Internet Order, were established under Obama-appointed F.C.C. Chair Tom Wheeler in 2015 to ensure an open and free Internet by requiring service providers to treat all data equally. Among other things, they prevent Internet service providers from prioritizing their own content—for example, Time Warner can’t choose to deliver content from CNN faster than content from Netflix or exempt CNN content from counting toward Time Warner users’ data caps. Internet service providers are also barred from creating so-called paid fast lanes or slowing/blocking Web content.
The rules are designed to ensure fair competition: while a large company like Google’s YouTube could afford to pay an Internet service provider’s fees for a better connection to consumers, small start-ups likely could not. While critics of net neutrality argue that the strict Obama-era guidelines have put a damper on investment in broadband, supporters say regulation is necessary to prevent large Internet service providers from destroying small businesses or overcharging consumers.
While the exact details of the plan are not yet public, Pai’s initial proposal, which sought to undo the Title II classification of service providers, was a roadmap to radically reshape the Internet. Rather than actually enforcing net-neutrality rules, the F.C.C. would ask Internet providers to promise in writing not to slow down competitors’ traffic or block Web sites, a voluntary system that the agency would not enforce. Enforcement powers would instead be handed to the Federal Trade Commission, which could punish Internet service providers for deceptive or unfair trade practices, but could not force them to make such promises to consumers in the first place. There would be nothing to stop Internet providers from changing their terms of service to allow them to control access speeds at will, though I.S.P.s have curiously insisted that they would welcome laws that ban throttling content.
During its 10 months in power, the Trump administration has moved to enact sweeping deregulations, but digital activists are alarmed at its newest target. “We are concerned with media reports that the F.C.C. chairman intends to surrender the legal authority of the F.C.C. over cable and telephone companies in exchange for legally unenforceable promises to protect an open Internet,” Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me earlier this year. “Such a plan would not preserve Internet freedom, but rather would destroy it by handing over the Internet to Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon. The F.C.C. should be fighting to enforce our rights, not negotiating the terms of their demise.”