FCC, Now Controlled by Democrats, Wants To Reinstate Obama-Era ‘Net Neutrality’ Rules

The Federal Communications Commission wants to bring back ‘net neutrality’ regulations that could shape the future of the internet.

AP/Carolyn Kaster, file
A protester near the Federal Communications Commission in 2017. AP/Carolyn Kaster, file

An announcement from the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday proposing to reinstate “net neutrality” regulations could reshape the future of the internet — as well as further fuel the debate over government censorship of online speech. 

The debate over whether internet service providers, such as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast, are a public utility that should be regulated by the FCC has been ongoing for years. Net neutrality rules, first imposed by the Obama administration and then rescinded during President Trump’s term, don’t allow internet providers to charge higher rates for faster speed and access to certain websites.

Now, a day after Democrats gained a majority in the FCC for the first time during President Biden’s term, the commission is beginning the process of restoring the Obama-era net neutrality rules.

“I believe this repeal of net neutrality put the agency on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the public,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said Tuesday. “So today we begin a process to make this right. This afternoon, I am sharing with my colleagues a rulemaking that proposes to restore net neutrality.”

The commission will vote on the rulemaking on October 19 and then open the regulations up to public comment, Ms. Rosenworcel said. 

Supporters of net neutrality say the rules are essential to ensuring that internet service providers — who may themselves own entertainment and content services — can’t discriminate against competitor’s content, while opponents argue the regulations may disincentivize companies from building out services to rural parts of the country and lead to government censorship. 

“The FCC leadership’s decision to revisit so-called ‘net neutrality’ regulations is a complete and utter waste of time,” the FCC Chairman under President Trump, Ajit Pai, tells the Sun. In his four years at the FCC, Mr. Pai led the effort to kill the Obama-era regulations. 

“It’s unfortunate that almost 1,000 days into the Biden administration, FCC leadership can’t come up with an accurate map of broadband availability, hasn’t held a single spectrum auction of its own, hasn’t improved Wi-Fi, and hasn’t stemmed the increasing waves of robocalls overwhelming consumers — but is determined to waste enormous time and effort on an issue that matters only to left-wing Beltway activists, Big Tech, and a few — alleged — comedians,” Mr. Pai says. 

Reimposing the regulations won’t help consumers get faster or more accessible internet services, he says, and may make it less likely that companies will have an incentive to “connect the unconnected.” 

Despite media buzz around the issue, Mr. Pai says he doesn’t believe net neutrality will be an issue in the election “because approximately zero voters” care about it. “And for good reason,” he says, because most Americans care more about internet access than the net neutrality regulations “pushed by a fact-free fringe desperately sure that the digital apocalypse is just around the corner — yet again.”

The net neutrality rules stem from classifying internet providers as “common carrier services” under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. Determining how to classify providers and defining how to interact with and regulate the internet will reignite a “political fight” between Democrats and Republicans about whether the regulations could be used as a form of censorship, some experts in the field warn.

“Generally the left-leaning view is that the Internet is a public good and it should be regulated and allocated by the public sector. It should be just like your water utility or your telephone company,” the deputy director of the Consumer Choice Center, Yaël Ossowski, tells the Sun. Yet others, including Mr. Ossowski, say the internet is competitive, robust, and evolving as is. 

“We don’t need to use a 1934-era rule or legislation to try to understand how to regulate the internet in 2023,” he notes.

The rules implemented under President Obama made “the market much more rigid” and led to “less competition,” Mr. Ossowski says, noting that when companies are classified as public utilities that are “scrutinized by the FCC,” they become more wary of investing and developing. 

The extra steps of doing business for the internet are “always passed on to consumers who have to pay more,” Mr. Ossowski says, and the new regulations are likely to “come at a higher price to people who use the Internet.”

Additionally, the allegations that have surfaced in the Missouri v. Biden case about the Biden administration’s attempts to force tech giants to suppress information and free speech pose a “new concern” about the power the FCC would have in regulating internet providers, Mr. Ossowski says. 

The last few years of government interference in tech raises the specter that neutrality regulations could “include things like misinformation, or things that the government deems is misinformation, and we don’t really know how that would go,” Mr. Ossowski adds.

Two Democratic senators, Edward Markey and Ron Wyden, have been urging the FCC to reinstate the net neutrality rules. “Now that the FCC has a full complement of commissioners, we urge you to act to protect the free and open internet for all Americans,” the senators wrote to Ms. Rosenworcel, arguing the regulations protect national security and expand access to the internet. 

Reimposing net neutrality regulations is favored by 72 percent of Americans, a 2022 University of Maryland poll of registered voters found. The rules are “enormously popular,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s legal director, Corynne McSherry, tells the Sun. 

Though generally nervous about federal intervention, this is one area that calls for it, Ms. McSherry says, because we “live in a world where most people don’t have a choice of providers, and so they are sort of stuck with whatever their ISP decides to serve up.” In that situation, she says, “you really need some rules of the road, and that’s what the 2015 net neutrality rules were.” 

Net neutrality regulations can help ensure that internet providers can’t discriminate against essential services, Ms. McSherry says. The pandemic made Americans “more aware than ever that the Internet is a necessity for so many different jobs, for healthcare, for education, and we don’t want a situation where an ISP interferes with your access.”


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