Network neutrality is on its deathbed, and Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission appointed by President Trump, is about to pull the plug. Pai could release a new set of rules as early as next week, according to two sources familiar with the agency’s process—while many Americans are distracted by Thanksgiving. If enacted, his proposal would likely rescind the net neutrality rules passed by the FCC in 2015 that prevented internet providers, like Comcast and Verizon, from charging websites to reach users at faster speeds. That’s just enough time for the FCC to vote to end the open internet protections by mid-December.
But not everyone on the FCC is gunning to undo the hard-won net neutrality protections.
The FCC started soliciting comments from the public on Pai’s proposal to end network neutrality in May. More than 22 million comments came in, but there have been so many serious irregularities with the process that Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel thinks the FCC needs to slam on the brakes. “I’ve got concerns,” Rosenworcel, who also served on FCC under President Obama and originally voted to instate the open internet order in 2015, said in an interview with Slate. “There were some procedural problems with the way this all came together.”
For instance, she said, there have been allegations that most of the comments came from bots, or some even from dead people. Most of those fraudulent comments were suspiciously against net neutrality, while data analysts found the overwhelming majority of organic comments to be in favor of the internet regulations. In May, the FCC said that its comment system went down due to “deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic,” an attack often referred to as a DDoS attack. Rosenworcel noted that the Government Accountability Office is now investigating that DDoS attack because the FCC’s description of what happened raised some red flags, including questions as to whether or not the attack actually happened, since, according to a letter from two congress members who called for the investigation, the FCC hasn’t “released any records or documentation that would allow for conﬁrmation that an attack occurred.”
All of which is why Rosenworcel says that before a vote takes place, the FCC needs to hold a series open hearings across the country to ensure that Americans gets a fair shot at weighing in on Pai’s proposal. “I think it’s important for the agency to get out from behind its computers and actually meet with the public on these matters face to face,” Rosenworcel said, because the consequence of killing the open internet protections could be extreme. “If you want to make changes this big that affect every person in this country who accesses the internet, we shouldn’t be shy about reaching out to Americans and asking them what they think about these policies. Rushing them through with a bureaucratic process and at a speed so that they occur before anyone knows what happens is just at odds with basic transparency,” Rosenworcel continued. (Slate reached out to ask Pai’s office to ask whether he is open to the idea of holding a series of public hearings before moving to finalize his proposal to end the network neutrality rules. We will update if we hear back.)
Without network neutrality rules, internet providers stand to make a lot of money, since the companies will be able to operate what is essentially a two-way toll—collecting money from both subscribers and websites that want to reach those users at faster speeds. The internet companies that are able to afford the fast-lane speeds would likely get to set the price, which could relegate most websites—including smaller startups and struggling news organizations—to what is, in effect, a slower internet. This would help further entrench the power of the incumbent internet companies. Yet one of the great promise of the internet is that there’s no telling what someone might create next, and if internet providers aren’t required to treat all websites equally, that vibrant future would likely flicker out.
The idea of agency-hosted hearings to clarify public opinion on contentious issues, like net neutrality, isn’t farfetched. The FCC has held public hearings under both Republican and Democratic leadership. In 2008, Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican appointed by President Bush, held two hearings about how internet providers treat traffic that travels over their network, and Chairmen Julius Genachowski and Tom Wheeler, who were both appointed by President Obama, each held multiple public events on network neutrality.
Pai said last year that he envisions “taking a weed whacker” to the network neutrality rules, but he also claimed at a House subcommittee hearing in July that he was open to hearing a convincing argument that investment in internet infrastructure from providers actually was on the rise now that net neutrality is the law of the land. But despite the fact that Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T have all said on investor calls that investment in their networks has actually increased since 2015, Pai seems poised to continue. Though it’s possible that without the network neutrality rules that broadband providers would have invested even more in their networks, there are all kinds of reasons why an ISP might have held back in the past 12 months: the election, disastrous extreme weather events, or even AT&T’s proposed merger with Time Warner.
If Pai does move forward with a vote, it’s likely that the Republican majority commission will win, and the rules could take effect soon after. That means by this time next year, the internet may be a very different place.
Still, the rules aren’t passed yet. And with so much confusion around the validity of the recent net neutrality comment process, it could only help to clarify public opinion on the issue before codifying any new rules. The future of the internet is at stake.