Policy

FCC Flooded With Reaction to Repealing Net Neutrality

Public comments echo 2015 rule making

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is opposed to the Obama-era open internet rules and his commission is in a position to roll them back. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

More than 1.2 million comments on net neutrality have flooded into the Federal Communications Commission in the two weeks since the agency proposed a rollback of the Obama-era open internet regulations, which requires that all internet traffic be treated the same.

The outpouring of public sentiment, both pro and con, promises to match or exceed the roughly 4 million comments filed over several months prior to the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rulemaking, which required internet providers to treat customers equally in terms of price and connection speeds.

However, there is concern the public will have only a few weeks to comment this time.

“We urge you to extend the FCC’s current comment period by at least one month so that the American people can adequately inform the Commission how to answer this question,” two senior Democrats wrote in a Thursday letter to the FCC commissioners.

The FCC is scheduled to vote May 18 to proceed with the proposed rulemaking to repeal net neutrality, almost a foregone conclusion given the agency’s 2-1 Republican majority. Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly strongly opposed the net neutrality regulation when it was implemented two years ago.

FCC replies to the public comments are now due in mid-August, “when many small business owners, students, internet users and workers are away,” wrote Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., ranking minority member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., the senior Democrat on its Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

“Developing a fulsome record that gives everyone a fair chance to weigh in should be in everyone’s interest — no matter where they ultimately fall in the net neutrality debate,” they added.

Primed by the recent congressional repeal of internet privacy rules issued by the FCC last year, as of May 12 the number of comments had more than quadrupled since supporters of net neutrality were urged to weigh in last Sunday night by comedian John Oliver on his “Last Week Tonight” show.

Oliver touted his own website, gofccyourself.com, which linked to the FCC’s website for filing comments online. The FCC website temporarily crashed that night, which the agency attributed to a cyberattack, a claim Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii want proven.

Pai’s net neutrality proposal would return internet privacy regulation, which governs how internet providers collect and share or sell data on the websites or apps used by customers, to the Federal Trade Commission, which lost jurisdiction when the FCC issued its 2015 Open Internet Order. It subjects internet service providers to heavier regulation under Title II of the Communications Act.

A stumbling block to Pai’s proposal may be eased by a May 9 federal appellate court decision to reconsider a court ruling made last year, which threatens to block the FTC from regulating most large internet providers even if the FCC returns jurisdiction to the consumer protection agency.

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to rehear the case temporarily suspends last year’s three-judge decision in FTC vs. AT&T Mobility, which would prevent FTC regulation of internet providers if their parent company also owns an FCC-regulated telephone company, such as AT&T or Verizon.

However, if the decision is upheld after the full court hears the case this September, the legal confusion would probably compel Congress to step in.

Pai touted the decision to rehear the case as “a big win for American consumers. Now that the court’s prior decision is no longer effective, it will be easier for the FTC to protect consumers’ online privacy.”

On Friday, he also picked one comment out of the 1.2 million, a letter from 19 municipal broadband providers, to highlight their support for his proposal, calling it “an exceptionally important contribution to the debate over restoring Internet freedom.”

“They told us that the FCC’s heavy-handed rules have led them to ‘often delay or hold off from rolling out a new feature or service,’” Pai said in a statement. “The fact that ISPs lacking any profit motive agree that eliminating Title II regulation will benefit consumers and promote innovation and investment is a powerful endorsement of reversing the FCC’s 2015 Title II Order.”

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