Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to roll back net neutrality rules took its first step forward on Thursday.
The commission voted 2-1 along party lines to advance Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom proposal, which would repeal current net neutrality protections.
Thursday’s vote opens a period of public input before the agency advances the proposal.
The FCC’s formal decision to consider the proposal did not come without resistance. The commission’s lone Democrat, Mignon Clyburn, harshly criticized the proposal, and activists braved the heat to protest outside FCC headquarters.
“While the majority engages in flowery rhetoric about light-touch regulation and so on, the endgame appears to be no-touch regulation and a wholescale destruction of the FCC’s public interest authority in the 21st century,” Clyburn said in her dissent.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, applauded the move and called for Democrats to come to the table to work out a legislative compromise on the issue.
“In politics, it is rare to get a second chance at bipartisan compromise, yet right now we have an opportunity to accomplish what eluded us two years ago — clear and certain rules in statute to protect the open internet,” he said on the Senate floor ahead of the commission’s vote.
Pai’s proposal would undermine existing net neutrality rules by undoing the legal basis of the regulations. The 2015 order imposed the rules by reclassifying the broadband industry as telecommunications services, which brought internet service providers under the FCC’s authority.
The Obama-era net neutrality regulations, passed in 2015 as the Open Internet Order, aimed to create a level playing field on the internet by ensuring that broadband providers treated all online content the same.
Public interest groups that have aggressively oppose Pai’s proposed initiative showed up in force outside of the FCC Thursday to protest the decision.
“Pai wants to continue the Trump administration’s assault on free speech and political dissent, and hand over control of the internet to his corporate cronies at AT&T, Comcast and Verizon,” said Free Press field director Mary Alice Crim. Free Press and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Color for Change have rallied their supporters to demonstrate against Pai’s plan.
At the demonstrations, the groups displayed a large faceless figure in a suit plastered with stickers for AT&T, Verizon and other companies and brought along puppets of President Trump and Pai.
Net neutrality supporters have argued lobbyists from the telecommunications industry are driving the initiative.
Republicans and broadband providers oppose the Obama-era regulations, accusing the FCC of regulatory overreach. They say that FCC regulation of broadband providers has inhibited investment in broadband infrastructure, adversely harming consumers.
Pro-net neutrality groups challenge this assertion. They argue that broadband companies’ analysis of investment numbers are not comprehensive enough and that other numbers show broadband growth.
”By multiple, independent metrics, ISP claims of depressed investment don’t mesh with reality. From actual capital expenditure numbers, to patents, to prices, Title II has not had the effects that ISPs claim,” the Internet Association, a trade association for internet companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon, wrote in a report.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) one of Pai’s most vocal critics in Congress, was among those in the crowd outside the FCC’s offices.
“We’re gonna fight this rule. We’re going to fight it at the FCC. We’re going to make sure that the FCC is flooded with comments that the net neutrality rules are working and that there is no problem and that they should not dismantle them,” Markey told reporters before holding up a sign that said “Never Gonna Give Up Net Neutrality,” as Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” played in the background.
“We’ve gotta keep it loud and make the point that we’ve won here in Washington before and we’ve got to do it again. We’re going to bring the SOPA and PIPA spirit,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who was also in attendance, told The Hill, recalling the aggressive public backlash against the Stopping Online Piracy and Protect IP acts in 2012.
Advocacy groups have said they plan to take advantage of the open comment period on the net neutrality proposal and will rally their members to file comments in support of the rules.
HBO’s John Oliver has already urged viewers of his show to do the same. The comedian is encouraging individuals to visit GoFCCYourself.com, which redirects to the Restoring internet Freedom proposal.
It’s unclear if the backlash from groups and Democratic lawmakers will have an impact. Democrats seem eager for a fight over net neutrality that could turn into an election issue in 2018 and have so far showed little interest in coming up with a legislative compromise.