Future Tense

The FCC’s Net Neutrality Repeal Hits the Books on Thursday

Here’s what that means, and what you can expect next.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 14:  Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai takes his seat during a commission meeting December 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. FCC has voted to repeal its net neutrality rules at the meeting.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai takes his seat, right before voting to gut the net neutrality rules in December.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Back in December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to go forward with its plan to ax net neutrality protections. But as you may have noticed, there has been relatively little news about the rollback since then.

That seems to be changing. Reuters and the Hill report that on Thursday, the commission will finally publish its rule to revoke network neutrality protections.* That doesn’t mean that it officially goes into effect then, though. What will happen is that the repeal will be published on the Federal Register, the official ledger of federal agency rules. It will become the rule of the land 60 days after publication, upon which time internet service providers will be able to block or throttle access to websites or charge websites a fee to reach users at faster speeds. But one thing can happen as soon as the rule is published: Groups that have been waiting to challenge the network neutrality repeal in court can file their lawsuits. The National Hispanic Media Coalition, Public Knowledge, and Free Press, among others, have all said they plan to challenge the net neutrality repeal in court. More than 20 state attorneys general have also said that they plan to challenge the FCC’s move to undo the internet protections.

It is possible that a lawsuit will mean that a judge will then soon grant an injunction preventing ISPs from entering the post-net neutrality era while the case is adjudicated. But an injunction isn’t a certainty or even very likely. So even if there is a promising lawsuit challenging the rules, ISPs may still be free to speed up or slow down connections to certain websites. The new net neutrality rules require only that internet providers to be transparent about their business practices, so Verizon, Comcast, and other ISPs will have to alert their subscribers that they reserve the right to do so.

There’s also momentum to get Congress to pass a resolution of disapproval, which would reverse or eliminate the FCC’s net neutrality order. Once the rule is published on the federal register, Congress has 60 “session days” to gather a majority in the House and the Senate to force a vote. But given the Republican majorities in the Senate and House, it’s a longshot, and one that’s probably only possible if people pick up the phone to call their representatives.

Still, with so much attention on the issue, most internet providers will probably tread lightly. More than 20 million comments about net neutrality were submitted to the FCC, the overwhelming majority of which opposed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to do away with the internet protections. The problem, though, is that the system the agency used to collect public comments on its net neutrality policymaking has been fraught with serious problems, including hundreds of thousands of bots, submissions from dead people, stolen identities, as well as nearly 500,000 comments from Russian email addresses. Almost all of the comments from bots were, oddly enough, arguing in favor of the net neutrality repeal. All of which is why members of Congress called on the Government Accountability Office to investigate corruption in the comment system last year. And in January, the GAO announced that it would go forward with the investigation, which is on top of a separate investigation it’s already conducting into a suspicious attack on its comment system that caused it to shut down temporarily in May.

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. Internet companies that are able to afford the fast-lane speeds, like Google, Yelp, or Facebook, would likely get to set the price, which could relegate most other websites that can’t afford the toll—including smaller startups, local businesses, and struggling news organizations—to what is, in effect, a slower internet. This would help further entrench the power of the incumbent internet companies, and make it even harder for new entrants to gain steam.

*Correction, Feb. 21, 2018: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misstated the date when the rules will be published. It is Thursday, Feb. 22, not Tuesday, Feb. 20.