With Consumer Privacy Rules Gone, Undoing Net Neutrality Is Ajit Pai’s Next Target

Rafia Shaikh
FCC ajit pai
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

After repealing Obama-era privacy rules, the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman is now ready to kill net neutrality. Separate reports from Reuters and the Wall Street Journal have confirmed that the chairman is moving quickly to replace another landmark rule that took years of advocacy and millions of angry consumer comments who were tired of getting slow download speeds.

After managing to get votes of Senate, Congress and the sign of President Trump sealing the lucrative deal full of customer data for ISPs, Ajit Pai's next goal is net neutrality. Instead of the law, Pai wants internet service providers to "promise" they won't be against an open internet. "FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed by President Donald Trump, met on Tuesday with major telecommunications trade groups to discuss his preliminary plan to reverse the rules, the sources said," Reuters reported.

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At the new FCC, everything from the Obama-era has to go

Approved by the former chairman Tom Wheeler in early 2015, the rules prohibit broadband providers from selling access to faster lanes to certain services over others. The rules ensure, for example, that AT&T can't offer preference to their own streaming service making it harder for independent streaming services like Vimeo to compete. Consumer groups had protested for this change, saying that an open internet has become a necessity - not a choice - for work and education.

Considering the importance of the internet, the FCC had essentially reclassified internet services as utilities. This decision was made to ensure that everyone would get equal access to an open internet. "Upon my @FCC departure, I would like to sign off with 3 words of wisdom that guided me well: competition, competition, competition," Wheeler had said.

It should be remembered, however, that even the Obama-appointed FCC wasn't so keen on turning the internet into a utility - again since it was worried of affecting ISPs' interests. However, after a stronger push by consumers, advocates and the President (his letter from 2014 can be read here), the commission did finally reclassify internet services as a utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

Why a promise, what's wrong with the law?

While it may appear like Pai hates these rules since he has put them on the chopping board, he still wants to bind ISPs to open internet principles. "The officials briefed on the meeting said Pai suggested companies commit in writing to open internet principles and including them in their terms of service, which would make them binding," Reuters said. It isn't clear if adding these principles without having the existing net neutrality rules would be legally binding.

It is also unclear - and confusing - that if these rules are so good, why would Pai focus on turning them into voluntary promises or good faith instead of keeping the existing law. Similar to privacy rules, Pai also wants to hand over control to the FTC, which is a much weaker group. Telecom giants have long sought to shift enforcement from FCC to FTC, which they believe will make them subject to lighter regulation.

The New York Times reported that it won't be as easy to undo net neutrality as it was to get rid of consumer privacy rules. "A federal appeals court upheld the regulations last year in a case brought by Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and other internet service providers," the report said. "Congress could try to overturn the rules but could not use the Congressional Review Act to do so because net neutrality was created more than a year ago."

However, Reuters suggests that Chairman is moving quickly to overturn these rules, and his initial proposal could come as early as later this month.

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