Rebooting digital equality: FCC to restore net neutrality, reversing Trump-era repeal

Jessica Rosenworcel Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Jessica Rosenworcel Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
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On April 25, the Federal Communications Commission will vote to restore landmark rules governing net neutrality — a federal policy with a history of popular bipartisan support that safeguards free speech online by requiring federally contracted telecom companies like AT&T to treat all internet traffic the same, barring them from blocking websites or slowing down internet speeds for profit. In October, Democrats retook majority control of the five-member FCC, finally ending the commission's 2-2 partisan deadlock which has stymied efforts by President Joe Biden to restore Obama-era Title II net neutrality rules for more than three years.

"The pandemic made clear that broadband is an essential service, that every one of us — no matter who we are or where we live — needs it to have a fair shot at success in the digital age," FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel told Reuters in a Tuesday interview. "An essential service requires oversight and in this case we are just putting back in place the rules that have already been court-approved that ensures that broadband access is fast, open and fair."

Under Title II of the Communications Act, the restored net neutrality rules would grant the FCC oversight authority over broadband companies, re-affirming the internet as an essential service. This would allow the commission to enforce uniform standards among US internet providers, instead of requiring companies to navigate an increasingly complex patchwork of state laws in the absence of federal guidance.

Government watchdog group Common Cause has long championed net neutrality protections, arguing that the rules protect the public's right to the equal access of publicly-funded internet infrastructure.

“The internet is a gateway to democracy for many and every voter has the right to a free and fair internet. From looking up information about candidates to finding polling sites, this net neutrality proposal will make it easier for every voter to participate in our modern democracy. We strongly encourage the FCC to restore net neutrality and return control of the internet to the people. Especially in a major election year, the FCC must do all it can to protect every voter’s right to basic information online," said Ishan Mehta, director of Common Cause's Media & Democracy Program, in an emailed statement Wednesday.

Opponents of net neutrality, however, criticized the digital equity policy despite its history of bipartisan support. In an emailed statement, the conservative Foundation for American Innovation (FAI) accused the commission of "unleashing a regulatory onslaught" by restoring net neutrality rules. The Silicon Valley think tank is a member of the Charles Koch-funded lobbying organization, the State Policy Network. Previously known as the Lincoln Network, FAI was co-founded by former President Donald Trump tech staffers Aaron Ginn and Garrett Johnson.

"The agency looks poised to saddle broadband providers with Title II rules that will increase compliance costs for ISPs and drive up the price of deploying networks. This would exacerbate the problems posed by the FCC's 'digital equity' rules and the NTIA imposing illegal price controls through the BEAD program," said FAI Senior Fellow Evan Swarztrauber.

Swarztrauber is a previous policy advisor to former Verizon lawyer and former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — the Trump appointee who led the net neutrality rollback, known for "defanging" the FCC, frequenting Koch parties, and giving $9.2 billion in federal funds to internet providers in a "reverse auction" so questionable that some companies may even have to give the money back.

"The FCC has already wasted precious resources on a partisan relitigation [sic] of a tiresome debate that could, and should, be resolved by Congress via simple non-discrimination rules that would have bipartisan support. The agency will never be able to regain the staff time spent on this issue that could have gone to worthy initiatives. And if the Supreme Court strikes down Title II under the major questions doctrine, then even the partisan goals of this regulatory effort will have been sought in vain," said Swarztrauber.

Rosenworcel has been adamant, however, that Title II rules do not allow the FCC to impose any form of price control — echoing findings of the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.

"This is not a stalking horse for rate regulation. Nope. No how, no way," the chair said in October. "We know competition is the best way to bring down rates for consumers. And approaches like the Affordable Connectivity Program are the best bet for making sure service is affordable for all. We will not let broadband providers, gatekeepers to the internet, dictate what we can and cannot say online."

Anti-censorship advocacy group Free Press Action celebrated the FCC's move in a Wednesday release — exclaiming "It's happening!," in a Wednesday tweet.

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"We’ve been fighting for this moment since Trump’s FCC threw out strong Title II rules and abandoned net neutrality back in 2017 – and really for nearly 20 years since net neutrality first came under threat," said Free Press Action co-CEO Craig Aaron in a statement. "By restoring these essential protections that millions fought so hard to make a reality, the FCC would once again be following the law Congress wrote for modern internet-access service ... Under these strong but flexible FCC rules, every ISP will be responsible for making resilient networks available to people on just and reasonable terms. And they won’t be able to pick and choose what any of us can say or see online."

The Biden administration signaled early support for the FCC's initiative last month. The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the lead advising body for the president on internet matters, said that Title II rules go beyond protecting net neutrality — supporting national security objectives to close up loopholes exploited by international cybersecurity threats.

"Fair and open access to the Internet underpins virtually every aspect of American life,” said NTIA head Alan Davidson, in a March 21 statement. "An internet that is open, secure and accessible to all is an Internet that drives innovation, economic growth and the free exchange of ideas around the world. Net neutrality helps ensure that creators of new Internet-based applications and content, for example, are able to make their products available to users around the world without needing to negotiate with every Internet service provider."

The FCC is encouraging public input and comments ahead of the April 26 rule-making meeting, which can be submitted via the commission's website form.