Despite bipartisan requests from members of Congress and 19 state attorneys general to delay, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held its vote on December 14 to repeal its net neutrality rules, and as expected, it passed with a vote of 3–2.
The decision will implement new rules that permanently end the legal basis upon which the FCC established net neutrality in 2015. It also ends the FCC's "general conduct standard," and it overrides state and local governments from creating their own net neutrality rules if those particular jurisdictions would have chosen to do so.
In his comments, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argued the new rules will actually create a freer and more open internet.
"By returning to the light-touch Title I framework, we are helping consumers and promoting competition," he said. "Broadband providers will have stronger incentives to build networks, especially in unserved areas, and to upgrade networks to gigabit speeds and 5G. This means there will be more competition among broadband providers."
However, net neutrality proponents argue, in an absence of these rules, internet service providers (ISPs) will have no reason not to exploit consumers, and those consumers will have no recourse.
"They will have the power to block websites, throttle services, and censor online content," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in her comments before casting her dissenting vote. "They will have the right to discriminate and favor the internet traffic of those companies with whom they have pay-for-play arrangements and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road. …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."
Opponents of net neutrality argue market forces will prevent ISPs from engaging in these practices. Pai dismisses net neutrality proponents' claims as "apocalyptic rhetoric;" however, with the FCC's own data showing approximately 80 percent of Americans have no choice of broadband provider (or no broadband service at all), supporters of net neutrality argue free market forces are limited.
This new plan requires ISPs to adhere to transparency rules. In other words, as long as ISPs disclose practices of blocking, slowing or speeding up traffic, they will be in compliance. Furthermore, the FCC has now ceded enforcement to the Federal Trade Commission.
The repeal is broadly seen as a victory for major ISPs, such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, which have led the fight against FCC net neutrality regulations since their inception.
Net neutrality rules were established in 2004 when the FCC first conceived its rules for the internet with bipartisan support. In 2010, the FCC turned its net neutrality rules into formal regulations, and in 2014, Verizon won a lawsuit against the FCC to overturn those rules. In 2015, the FCC established the internet under Title II regulations of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and that is the decision the FCC has now reversed.
Though beginning with bipartisan support, in recent years, net neutrality has been politically controversial. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted in her dissenting statement that the FCC had received 24 million comments from concerned parties in the public and that it is the most public comments the FCC has received on any previous record. In the weeks leading up to this vote, protestors demonstrated outside of the FCC's building in Washington, D.C. And even during this session, as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai delivered his final comments, federal police forced occupants to vacate while it investigated an apparent bomb threat.
The FCC's net neutrality rules have been extremely popular among the American public across party lines.
This decision will almost certainly be challenged in court. According to the Washington Post, New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced intentions to file a multistate lawsuit, stating the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules was illegal. As of this writing, California, New York and Washington had joined in suing the FCC with reports of Oregon, Illinois, Iowa and Massachusetts set to join.
During the public comment period, the FCC received millions of fake comments as well as hundreds of thousands from Russian email addresses, in support of repeal. Calling the public comment process "corrupted," Schneiderman said impending lawsuits would focus on how the FCC conducted these proceedings.
It will be some time as this issue plays out in courts. In the interim, the FCC will make final adjustments to the rules before it files them with the Federal Register in a few weeks. It will take a few months before the new rules appear there. Then, net neutrality will officially be dead, and ISPs will no longer have to observe its rules.