FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, forged ahead with the vote, despite widespread opposition and a request from 18 state attorneys general to delay it over concerns that the public comment process was corrupted by fraudulent messages. The repeal proposal passed 3-2 on party lines.
The hearing was temporarily delayed — and the room evacuated — by a bomb threat before Pai could cast the fifth and final vote. Commissioners were permitted to continue after police and dogs searched the empty chamber.
The repeal rolls back so-called “Title II” regulations that classified the internet as a public utility, and which, among other things, required internet service providers, or ISPs, to treat all of the data traveling on their networks equally.
Without the protections of Title II, those ISPs can now legally begin treating data from some websites differently than others.
So Comcast, for instance, could charge customers who use Netflix extra for using so much bandwidth; AT&T could, in theory, decide to block access to some websites entirely; or Verizon, which owns HuffPost’s parent company Oath, could hypothetically decide wireless customers won’t be charged data when they’re viewing HuffPost content.
(HuffPost’s union is represented by the Writers Guild of America, East, which supports net neutrality and opposed its repeal.)
Immediately after Thursday’s vote, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman pledged to sue to halt the FCC’s actions.
In Congress, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) joined with 15 other senators to contest the FCC decision via a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution.
“We will fight the FCC’s decisions in the courts, and we will fight it in the halls of Congress,” Markey said in a statement. “With this CRA, Congress can correct the Commission’s misguided and partisan decision and keep the internet in the hands of the people, not big corporations.”
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday ahead of the vote, telecom industry executives sought to calm the storm of public opinion.
Michael Powell, the head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and a former FCC chairman, argued that just because it’s now legal for ISPs to discriminate against internet traffic and create fast lanes doesn’t mean they will.
“We can’t live by a principle that just because there isn’t a rule banning something, it doesn’t mean necessarily that something is going to happen,” he said.
“There are a lot of things in our society we don’t expressly prohibit, but it doesn’t mean that they’re going to happen,” he added. “There’s no law that says I can’t paint my house hot pink, but I assure you I have no intention of doing it.”
He called arguments to the contrary — that ISPs are only repealing net neutrality rules so they can engage in the sort of behavior that would otherwise have been prohibited — “a very lazy and unfounded way of looking at the problem.”
While ISPs have previously pledged not to prioritize web traffic in this manner, under the new rules, customers can’t do much but take them at their word. And their word is no ironclad guarantee.
Last week, Comcast quietly altered a net neutrality pledge that had been on its website since 2014, removing a promise that it wouldn’t “prioritize internet traffic or create paid fast lanes” and replacing it with a much more cautious pledge to “not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content.” If Comcast decides on a whim to change its pledge again next week, it absolutely can.
In addition to repealing net neutrality, the new FCC rules also strip state and local governments of the power to enact their own laws regulating broadband service.
That provision alarmed a group of nearly five dozen mayors from across the political spectrum, who signed a public letter last week slamming the FCC’s actions as a “stark, inexplicable, and unwarranted attack on the constitutional principles that lie at the heart of our system of government.”
A collective of internet activist groups that have united under the banner of “Team Internet” responded to the repeal by calling on Congress to review and overturn the FCC’s action.
“The telecom industry spent millions lobbying and spreading misinformation to pit Internet users against each other and turn net neutrality into a partisan issue,” the group said in an emailed statement to HuffPost. “They have failed.”
“Net neutrality has more public support now than it ever has before. Internet users are educated, outraged, and strategic, and they know that Congress has the power to overturn the FCC vote,” the statement continued. “Lawmakers cannot hide from their constituents on this issue. The Internet has given ordinary people more power than ever before. We’re going to fight tooth and nail to make sure no one takes that power away.”