FCC Chair Moves to Rekindle Net Neutrality Fight
WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel on Tuesday kick-started the process to restore “net neutrality” regulations, declaring that “no one can have a fair shot at 21st century success” without “fast, open and fair” access to the internet.
Rosenworcel’s remarks, delivered before reporters and net neutrality activists at the National Press Club, are sure to reignite what had been a pitched, long, running battle between Silicon Valley and most of the nation’s largest internet service providers.
For those who need a refresher, the concept of net neutrality is based on the premise that internet service providers, also called ISPs, shouldn’t favor or discriminate against some websites or services over others.
Historically, ISPs, a group that includes both cable and phone companies, have opposed net neutrality and fought tooth and nail to prevent it from becoming public policy.
In 2015, after 10 years of policymaking at the FCC, and multiple rounds of litigation, the agency barred ISPs from blocking or slowing access to internet sites or creating paid “fast lanes” for preferred services.
During the Obama administration, the broadband industry lost its legal bid to stop the regulations, but the Trump-era FCC overturned them.
An appeals court largely upheld the Trump administration’s decision in October 2019.
Rosenworcel, who at the time was one of two Democrats on the commission, assailed the move, saying the agency had abdicated its authority and rejected a policy “supported by 80% of Americans.”
“Maybe you remember it,” she said to her National Press Club audience. “People lit up our phone lines, clogged our email inboxes and jammed our online comment system to express their disapproval.
“Despite this overwhelming opposition from the public, the FCC repealed net neutrality [anyway]. In fact, the FCC’s actions were so extreme, the U.S. Senate voted to restore the agency’s open internet protections,” she continued.
“But when it came to net neutrality, the FCC was on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public,” Rosenworcel said.
“It was not good then. And it makes even less sense now,” she said, adding, “Today, there is no expert agency ensuring that the internet is fast, open and fair.”
“Access to the internet is now access to everything, and common sense tells us that the nation’s leading communications watchdog should have the muscle it needs to protect consumers,” she said.
Rosenworcel announced her plan to restore net neutrality a day after a third Democrat was sworn in to serve on the five-member commission, giving her party a 3-2 FCC majority for the first time since Joe Biden has been president.
But she acknowledged her press conference was just the first of a series of steps to come.
“This afternoon, I’m sharing with my colleagues a rulemaking that proposes to reinstate net neutrality,” she said. “On Thursday, I will release the full text of this rulemaking.
“It will seek comment on putting back in place policies to prevent your broadband provider from engaging in blocking, throttling and paid prioritization, along with a general conduct rule that prohibits your broadband provider from unreasonably interfering or unreasonably disadvantaging consumers from going where they want and doing what they want on the internet,” Rosenworcel explained.
Much like the 2015 rule, the proposal would effectively make ISPs adhere to the same regulations long imposed on phone companies, including obligations to keep consumers’ personal data private.
For consumers, this means internet openness, security, safety and one nationwide net neutrality standard they can count on,” she said.
Rosenworcel said the commission itself will vote on her proposal on Oct. 19.
“And if we get at least three votes, we will kick off this rulemaking,” she said.
In addition to restoring net neutrality, Rosenworcel said her proposal would also rectify a flaw in the appellate court order upholding former FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s repeal of the old rule: the court’s order opened the door to states enacting their own rules, creating a “patchwork” of net neutrality regulations.
“When you are dealing with the most essential infrastructure in the digital age, we benefit from having a national policy,” she said.
“I know a small band of naysayers is already raising its objections, saying we’re being too heavy handed, but that’s just not true. We’re approaching this with a light touch,” she continued.
At another point, she promised to “do a lot of listening.”
“We all need to have an open mind,” she said.
Rosenworcel also attempted to preempt concerns that the agency will eventually wade into regulating the prices providers charge consumers.
“Nope. No how, no way,” she said. “We know competition is the best way to bring down rates for consumers.”
The Computer & Communications Industry Association, a trade group that represents Google, Amazon and other tech companies, praised Rosenworcel’s announcement.
“Ensuring the nondiscriminatory provisioning of broadband internet access service has already been deemed to be within the FCC’s statutory authority,” said Stephanie Joyce, the group’s senior vice president and chief of staff, in a written statement.
“Reinstating those protections will ensure that America’s digital economy is inclusive, open and stable,” she said.
Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, a trade group representing AT&T, Verizon and other internet providers, espoused a markedly different view.
“America’s broadband providers are fiercely committed to an open internet. That has not and will not change,” he said in a written statement. “Powering up an outdated regulatory time machine to impose rules designed for a long-forgotten era runs directly counter to, and will likely derail, the critical achievement we are so close to reaching — universal connectivity.
“Treating broadband as a Title II utility is a dangerous and costly solution in search of a problem. Congress must step in on this major question and end this game of regulatory ping-pong. The future of the open, vibrant internet we now enjoy hangs in the balance,” Spalter said.
Rosenworcel closed her remarks with a plea.
“I have every expectation that this process will get messy at times. … And I believe peaceful protests are a sign of a healthy democracy. What I worry about is when things get ugly,” she said.
Her comment was an oblique reference to the case of Markara Man, the Norwalk, California, man who was sentenced to 20 months in prison in 2019 for threatening to kill Pai and his family for the role the former FCC chair played in net neutrality’s repeal.
Rosenworcel called such extremism “completely unacceptable,” but said it wasn’t the only incident that marred debate over the issue.
She also recalled a fake bomb threat called in to disrupt a commission vote, the harassment of commissioners by protesters and what she described as “a dark effort to tear down a pro–net neutrality candidate for the agency.”
“I recognize that those who go to these extremes are not listening to or reading these remarks, but those of you who are, please set the tone for the debate. So make some noise, raise a ruckus, but keep it in the lines. Above all, keep speaking up.
“We are here now because so many people let the agency know that this issue matters. We have now made a historic commitment to make sure that high-speed internet access reaches all. We have invested in this infrastructure like never before. Let’s make sure it’s fast, open and fair for consumers everywhere,” Rosenworcel said.