FCC Votes to Restore Net Neutrality

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Key Takeaways

  • The FCC has voted to restore net neutrality rules in the US.
  • The agency pulled neutrality under Ajit Pai in 2017.
  • The move prevents ISPs from blocking or throttling legal content.

As anticipated, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has restored net neutrality rules in a 3-2 vote.

The FCC has reclassified broadband internet as a Title II communications service, giving the agency the authority to actively regulate access.

The move bars internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or throttling legal content. They also can’t charge users for prioritization of that content, such as paying extra to optimize service for certain apps or games.

The net neutrality vote also lets the FCC get involved with service outages, and theoretically improves national security. The Commission now has the authority to revoke permissions for Chinese state-owned telecoms like China Mobile to run broadband service in the US. Previously, the regulator could only pull authorization for voice service.

The restoration vote was possible only after October 2023, when Democrats regained majority control of the FCC.

The FCC first instituted Title II net neutrality in a 2015 vote under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler. The concern was that ISPs might block or slow down apps and services that compete with their own, such as streaming video platforms. The rules ideally create more choice and better opportunities for new services.

A D.C. Circuit court upheld the rules in 2016.

The initial approach didn’t last long. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Commissioner and former Verizon lawyer appointed by President Trump, repealed net neutrality in a December 2017 vote. He likened the regulation to authoritarianism and also shut down an investigation into “zero-rating” policies at phone carriers.

The repeal process drew protests and controversy. Outsiders found that many of the comments supporting the end of net neutrality were fake, and Pai was accused of obstruction when he refused to cooperate with New York State’s attorney general on an investigation into the bogus comments.

President Biden signalled an intent to revive net neutrality in July 2021, when he signed an executive order encouraging the FCC to bring back the Title II rules. While the Democrats on the Commission have long supported this, they couldn’t implement a change while they held a minority.

The technology industry reaction to the net neutrality vote has been split along familiar lines. The carrier-led United States Telecom Association, which includes providers like AT&T and Verizon, have claimed the rules are an “anti-consumer regulatory distraction.”

The Computer and Communications Industry Association, whose members include Alphabet (Google’s parent), Meta, and Apple, has supported net neutrality. It has maintained that equal treatment has been necessary to establish “open access.”

It’s not certain how long the rules will last. The 2024 presidential election may cut things short if Trump wins and appoints a deregulation advocate to the Chairperson role. For now, though, ISPs in the U.S. will have to abide by net neutrality and treat network traffic relatively equally.