The Federal Communications Commission voted today to dismantle a policy designed to protect “net neutrality,” in a dramatic shift that has roiled the public and carries uncertain implications for schools.
The measure will reverse a two-year-old FCC policy that was meant to prevent internet service providers from unfairly blocking or throttling the flow of content over the internet.
Critics fear the new policy will open the door for internet service providers to create fast and slow lanes in a way that reduces online options for consumers, including K-12 districts, which rely heavily on relatively unrestricted access to web-based lessons, videos, games, curricula, and other materials.
The order proposed by the commission’s Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, was expected to pass, given that his political party holds a majority on the panel.
It was approved on a 3-2 margin along partisan lines. Pai and fellow Republicans Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr voted for it, while Democrats Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel were opposed.
Pai has predicted that broadband companies will eventually invest in networks in ways that will benefit internet communities. He bemoaned what he said were exaggerated “apocalyptic” fears about the shift in policy.
“The time has come for action,” the FCC chairman said before the vote. “The time has come for the internet, once again, to be driven by engineers, entrepreneurs, and consumers, rather than lawyers, accountants, and bureaucrats.”
It is “time for us to bring faster, better, and cheaper internet access to all Americans,” Pai said. “The sky is not falling, consumers will remain protected and the internet will continue to thrive.”
Power to Internet Providers?
But Rosenworcel said that broadband providers would get “extraordinary new powers” as a result of the FCC’s decision.
Internet service providers claim they will not block or slow the movement of online content, she said, but “they have the technical ability and business incentive to discriminate and manipulate your internet traffic, and now this agency gives them the legal green light to go ahead and do so.”
In a sign of the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the vote, the hearing was briefly halted and the FCC’s chamber cleared during Pai’s remarks, a decision he said was based on the advice of security.
K-12 educators and ed-tech advocates have at least two overriding worries about the impact of the new FCC policy.
The first is that school districts will see their access to academic online resources blocked or throttled, if internet service providers are given new liberty to channel content into fast and slow lanes.
The second fear is that entrepreneurs and startup education companies that rely on relatively fast delivery of content to schools could lose out to deep-pocketed vendors that can afford to pay internet service providers more for faster, higher-quality access.
Net neutrality is the principle that internet content should be treated equally by internet service providers, so that the industry is not allowed to block or throttle content, or deliver material from different sites at faster or slower speeds based on which content providers are paying more.
Most FCC policy debates barely register in the public consciousness outside of Washington.
But the debate over net neutrality has roared with unusual ferocity across the country, engaging not only industry and consumer-advocacy groups but a vast swath of the public, as well as TV personalities and celebrities, many of them opposing Pai’s plan.
Critics of the FCC proposal have launched broad campaigns and enlisted tech companies like Facebook, Reddit, and Amazon, in opposing what they see as efforts to weaken net neutrality.
The “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” released Nov. 23 now reverses a policy approved by the FCC’s then-Democratic majority two years ago.
The 2015policy, championed by former FCC Chairman and Obama appointee Tom Wheeler, subjected internet service providers to regulation through Title II of the Communications Act and section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. That order forbade providers from blocking or throttling content, and from engaging in “paid prioritization,” or assigning content to fast lanes based on monetary arrangements.
Pai, who was named FCC chairman by President Trump, has depicted the 2015 order as over-regulation, arguing that it has dampened internet service providers’ interest in making investments in technology and producing innovations that benefit online consumers.
His plan would strip away much of the 2015 regulatory policy. It classifies broadband internet as an information service, rather than a Title II telecommunications service. Pai believes the new approach is lighter-touch policy that strips away the utility-style regulation of Wheeler’s earlier order.
The new order also seeks to prevent individual states and local jurisdictions from setting their own internet policies that are inconsistent with the FCC’s order.
The plan will require internet service providers to publicly disclose accurate information regarding their network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of service. The FCC says this will require those companies to disclose blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization.
The FCC will be charged with ensuring that internet service providers are publicly describing their practices. Another agency, the Federal Trade Commission, will have the power to penalize companies that are not living up to their public promises to consumers.
Pai contends that those transparency requirements will discourage providers from engaging in bad behavior that would hurt consumers, including school districts.
“There is little or no evidence that providers do anything but provide their customers with access to all legal content,” the FCC said in a recent statement to Education Week. “It’s good business and what consumers, including schools, want.”
FCC Commissioner O’Rielly echoed that argument in remarks during Thursday’s hearing.
“The legend of a cable company trying to break the internet makes scary bedtime stories...but it is not reality,” O’Rielly said. “So for those of you out there that are fearful what tomorrow will bring, please take a deep breath. This decision will not break the internet.”
Internet service providers that attempt to block or throttle content would face a “PR nightmare,” O’Rielly added. “It’s simply not worth the reputational cost and the potential loss of business.”
Other supporters of the new policy see additional protections for internet users. FCC Commissioner Carr, for instance, argued at Thursday’s hearing that federal antitrust law will prevent internet service providers from reaching unfair agreements that end up blocking or discriminating against internet traffic. In addition, he said, state attorneys general will be able to enforce consumer protection laws against providers engaging in unscrupulous practices.
But some school officials have been skeptical, telling Education Week that they worry that internet service providers will simply publicly disclose practices that have the effect of restricting K-12 districts’ access to online content. Because those companies have met the FCC’s new legal requirements for transparency, district officials would have no choice but to accept them, the thinking goes.
Supporters of Pai’s plan have also argued that internet service providers have a market incentive to treat consumers fairly: if they don’t, consumers will switch carriers.
But many of the nation’s K-12 communities have limited internet options.
A survey released by the Consortium for School Networking this year found that 43 percent of school officials said their districts have only one available internet provider. A majority of those districts are in rural areas.
Christopher Harris, the director of the school library system for a regional education services agency in western New York, said the libraries he works for are currently able to “handpick” internet content from an array of sources—big online publishers and small ones, online databases, and providers of video streaming services.
If any of those sources are stymied in delivering content to schools as a result of the FCC policy, it would have a cascading effect that will hurt districts and libraries, he said.
“What does this change mean for small publishers?” said Harris, who works for the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, which represents 22 mostly rural school districts. “Are they going to have to pay more [to internet companies]? Are we going to have to pay more?”
Harris also speculated that the unimpeded delivery of content will depend not just on the internet service providers in his region, but also the companies serving the individual publishers, in different parts of the country.
“We’re going to trust these companies to act in good faith?” he asked.
Many K-12 teachers ask students to not only complete assignments that require online access, but also to conduct independent research that broadens their knowledge base. Cindy Perouty, a science teacher at Century High School in Sykesville, Md., regularly makes those requests of students, and she worries that the FCC policy could undermine that work.
Many K-12 science curricula weave printed resources with digital content, and if an ISP slowed the online flow of information, students would lose out, she said.
“We don’t know where this is all leading,” Perouty said of the new FCC policy. “To me, the internet should be like a library, a utility that everyone has access to. It shouldn’t be controlled by a monopoly determining what you have access to, and what you don’t.”
The Consortium for School Networking, which represents K-12 technology officials, said there are legitimate reasons for schools to be uneasy, because of the weakening of the “guardrails” that protect net neutrality.
“School systems will now face a bleak reality: reduced choices, higher prices and fewer innovative tools,” Keith Krueger, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “We hoped the FCC leadership would have carefully considered the implications for teaching and learning before making such a drastic move.”
The debate over net neutrality is not likely to end with Thursday’s vote. Many advocates expect that the new order will be challenged in court, as previous FCC actions on internet policy have been.
And it’s possible that Congress could attempt to approve a law that sets policy governing net neutrality. Many federal lawmakers, most of them Democrats, had urged the FCC to delay its vote on Pai’s policy, or voiced opposition to it.
But it remains unclear if a Congress beset by partisan rancor could coalesce around an internet policy.
Action on Capitol Hill, O’Rielly said, is “the only way we can bring finality to this issue.”
This post has been updated.
Photo: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai arrives for an FCC meeting to vote on net neutrality. --Jacquelyn Martin/AP
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.