Future Tense

The Death of Net Neutrality Becomes Official in One Month

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 26: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai testifies before the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing on the 2019FY FCC Budget on Capitol Hill on April 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images)
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has long dreamed of taking “a weed whacker” to the open internet protections. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission repealed the rules mandating network neutrality last year, but until Thursday the FCC hadn’t announced the day that the deed would become official. Now we have it: June 11, 2018. In one month, internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon will be allowed to exert significantly more control over how Americans access the web. That might mean blocking access to websites, slowing down connections as they please, or charging websites a fee to reach users at faster speeds. Under the news rules, anything goes as long as internet providers say in their terms of service that they reserve the right to do so. And all of this will happen against a backdrop in which most Americans only have one or two options for high-speed internet.

The repeal of the network neutrality rules, which were put in place by the Obama-era FCC to prevent internet providers from throttling speeds and blocking access to information online, was on the top of current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s agenda as soon as he took over the agency in 2017. In December 2016, the month before President Trump appointed Pai, the chairman said he planned to “fire up the weed whacker and remove” the network neutrality rules, which he says hinder innovation. While they’d certainly argue otherwise, Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T seem to have done plenty of innovating even with the rules in place. All three companies have said on investor calls that investment in their networks has actually increased since 2015, after the Obama-era rules were on the books.

The repeal didn’t happen without a fight. Opposition to the decision to rescind the rules garnered more public comments than any rulemaking in the FCC’s history. Last year, 23 million comments poured into the FCC on the issue, the overwhelming majority in favor of upholding the network neutrality protections. And this was despite a comment process marred by meddling corruption (largely in favor of repeal), which caused some commissioners on the FCC to call for the network neutrality actions to be put on hold until the commission could sort out the myriad red flags that popped up during the public participation process. Thousands of bots submitted comments. Others were made under stolen identities (including the names of dead people). Hundreds of thousands came from Russian email addresses, and they mostly were in favor of rescinding the open internet rules. The FCC’s electronic public input system was even hit last year by a mysterious cyberattack, which is subject to an ongoing federal investigation.

Still, none of this derailed Pai’s deregulatory agenda, which is expected to be hit with multiple lawsuits challenging the network neutrality rollback on the grounds that public agencies are legally required to engage in a fair public comment process in the course of passing new policy. Some states’ attorneys general have moved to sue the FCC for moving forward with the net neutrality repeal despite the serious snafus that have corrupted the public engagement process. And governors in New York, Montana, and Hawaii have issued executive orders that bar state offices from doing any business with internet providers that don’t adhere to basic network neutrality protections, like prohibitions on speeding up access to sites that pay to reach users at faster speeds.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are fighting back, too. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats filed a petition to undo or prevent a repeal of network neutrality protections. The petition, which was introduced under what’s called a Congressional Review Act resolution, will force a vote in the Senate that would only need a simple majority to pass. Right now, 49 democratic senators and one republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, have said they’ll vote in favor. And with Sen. John McCain absent because of his cancer treatment, 50 votes would be enough to send the resolution to the House. There it hits bigger roadblocks. House Republicans outnumber democrats 236-193, which means at least 20 Republicans would have to get on board if every Democrat voted in favor. Then President Trump would have to sign on—an unlikely prospect, to put it mildly. But even a symbolic legislative defense of network neutrality helps keep the issue alive, and the midterm elections aren’t far off. There’s a lot of fight left in this particular struggle for the future of the net.