Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has announced the agency will seek to undo recently enacted regulations on broadband service providers, a move that critics say will hamper the free flow of information on the internet and allow companies such as AT&T and Comcast to block or slow down some content and essentially police themselves.
In a speech Wednesday at the Newseum in Washington, Pai, a Republican who was recently named the commission’s chairman by President Donald Trump, framed the move as a stark choice between free-market principles and heavy-handed government overreach.
“Do we want the government to control the internet? Or do we want to embrace the light-touch approach established by President Clinton and a Republican Congress in 1996 and repeatedly reaffirmed by Democratic and Republican FCCs alike?” he said.
The FCC will release the full details of his plan tomorrow, via a formal notice of proposed rulemaking. That will be voted on at the commission’s May 18 meeting. If approved, it will kick off a process of soliciting public feedback. Pai said he hopes to have his plan formally approved by the end of the calendar year.
The centerpiece of the plan is undoing the FCC’s 2015 decision to classify internet services providers as Title II telecommunications services, and going back to classifying them as a Title I information service.
If approved, that would result in the FCC giving up much of the authority it claimed under previous chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, to regulate broadband providers. The commission has used that authority to ban practices such as blocking internet traffic and to investigate practices such as “zero-rating,” in which companies sought to exempt their own services from consumers’ data caps.
Pai’s proposal would also result in responsibility for protecting Americans’ online privacy being sent back to the Federal Trade Commission.
The benefits of adopting his approach, Pai maintained, would include better access to affordable high-speed internet for more Americans; greater investment in building new high-speed networks, resulting in more jobs; and more competition among broadband providers.
Wednesday’s announcement sets up a rematch of the high-stakes showdown that took place when the FCC initially took up the issue in 2014 and 2015, generating millions of online comments and huge push by open-internet advocates to ensure that all online content is treated equally. Now, ISPs and free-market Republicans are likely to support Pai’s plan, while tech companies and proponents of “net neutrality” are likely to be bitterly opposed.
The latter argue that Title II classification and the related rules recently adopted by the FCC are necessary to prevent companies from creating “internet fast lanes” for their preferred content (or the content of those who are willing to pay extra), while relegating other content to so-called slow lanes.
That’s a concern of some education, ed-tech, and civil rights groups, who worry that the online educational content increasingly used by schools could become harder to access. Thousands of school districts with little or no choice in the broadband marketplace would be at the mercy of companies who might choose to prioritize certain companies or types of content, they contend.
Net Neutrality Rollback: Penalizing Students?
Tracy Weeks, executive director of State Educational Technology Directors Association, worries that lessons requiring high bandwidth—like streaming education videos or using online interactive learning platforms—may no longer be possible with some content providers.
The rollback will “penalize” students, Weeks said in an interview, for “simply using the [the internet] the way that we hope that they would use it.”
There’s no guarantee that schools will be able to continue using preferred online resources with the same functionality, said Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, an open internet advocacy organization, in an interview.
And for many schools, he said, switching internet providers will not be an option.
“As a public school educator, your school may have been wired by one of these companies as part of a deal with the district or the city,” said Aaron. “You probably only have one choice.”
Weeks hopes providers would prioritize providing educational content at high speeds, regardless of its source. Service providers have been “deeply engaged,” she said, with SETDA and other school technology advocacy organizations, like the Consortium for School Networking and ISTE.
“I would think that [service providers] would approach how they deal with bandwidth utilization differently with schools, but it’s going to require continued partnership and some advocacy work directly with those partners,” said Weeks.
“I do have hopes that we could find ways to work together to ensure that our schools are protected from any sort of downsizing of the capacity for students to access the internet.”
In an interview earlier this month with Education Week, former FCC Chairman Wheeler warned of dire consequences if the effort to repeal net neutrality rules goes through.
“If you don’t have a fast, fair and open Internet, how can you provide the kind of access to information that students need?” Wheeler said.
“Innovative new services and ideas then have to compete against that which the network provider has already said it’s going to favor. And you can’t have fair competition.”
Pai, however, has a dramatically different view. And he is now the person in charge.
The internet has become “the greatest free-market success story in history,” he said, in large part because the government has used a “light touch” when regulating it.
That changed under Wheeler, Pai maintained, because it was politically expedient—not because there was an actual problem in the marketplace.
“Did these fast lanes and slow lanes exist? No,” Pai said on Wednesday.
“The truth of the matter is that we decided to abandon successful policies solely because of hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom.”
UPDATE: This post was updated by Sarah Schwartz with comments from Tracy Weeks, executive director of State Educational Technology Directors Association, and Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.