The Fed­eral

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Commission voted 2 to 1 to loosen reg­u­la­tions for In­ter­net providers.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY BRIAN FUNG brian.fung@washpost.com

The Repub­li­can-led Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Commission voted Thurs­day to be­gin un­do­ing a key de­ci­sion from the Obama era that could re­lax reg­u­la­tions on In­ter­net ser­vice providers.

The move high­lights the uphill bat­tle for Democrats and con­sumer ad­vo­cates, who say that weaker rules could al­low In­ter­net ser­vice providers to abuse their po­si­tion as gate­keep­ers be­tween cus­tomers and the rest of the In­ter­net. The cur­rent net neu­tral­ity rules make it il­le­gal for In­ter­net ser­vice providers to block or slow down web­sites for con­sumers.

ISPs have ar­gued that soft­en­ing the rules would help them to con­tinue up­grad­ing their net­works and find new ways of mak­ing money.

The vote en­ables the FCC to be­gin tak­ing pub­lic feed­back on its pro­posal, which could be re­vised and put to a fi­nal vote later this year.

By a 2-1 vote led by FCC Chair­man Ajit Pai, the agency pro­posed to roll back a 2015 de­ci­sion that reg­u­lated In­ter­net providers more heav­ily, us­ing some of the same rules the agency ap­plies to phone com­pa­nies. The pro­posal also sug­gests re­peal­ing the “gen­eral con­duct” rule that al­lows the FCC to in­ves­ti­gate busi­ness prac­tices of In­ter­net providers that it sus­pects may be anti-com­pet­i­tive. And fi­nally, the pro­posal asks whether the agency should elim­i­nate the most high-pro­file parts of the net neu­tral­ity rules: The rules ban­ning the block­ing and slow­ing of web­sites, as well as the rule for­bid­ding ISPs from charg­ing web­sites ex­tra fees.

“To­day we pro­pose to re­peal util­ity-style reg­u­la­tion of the In­ter­net,” said Pai. “The ev­i­dence strongly sug­gests this is the right way to go.”

The FCC’s lone Demo­crat, Mignon Cly­burn, said the de­ci­sion to re­visit the rules was merely the lat­est in a broader ef­fort by Repub­li­cans to un­der­cut its own mis­sion.

“The endgame ap­pears to be no-touch reg­u­la­tion,” said Cly­burn, “and a whole­sale de­struc­tion of the FCC’s pub­lic in­ter­est au­thor­ity in the 21st cen­tury.”

Repub­li­can law­mak­ers have pro­posed con­vert­ing the FCC reg­u­la­tion into a bill, but Democrats — con­cerned that the re­sults could be much weaker than the cur­rent rules — are in­stead gear­ing up for a grass-roots bat­tle sim­i­lar to the kind that de­feated the House Repub­li­can health­care plan.

“This fight is just start­ing,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), in a state­ment. “The pub­lic now has the op­por­tu­nity to stand up, be heard, and in­flu­ence the out­come. It will take mil­lions of peo­ple stand­ing up . . . to say that the In­ter­net needs to stay free and open.”

In­ter­net providers largely hailed the vote, which of­fi­cially marks a first step to­ward looser reg­u­la­tions.

“The FCC un­der Chair­man Pai’s lead­er­ship took an im­por­tant step to­day to­ward re­turn­ing to the reg­u­la­tory frame­work that was so suc­cess­ful for so many years,” said Ver­i­zon in a state­ment.

Un­der­ly­ing the politics is a com­plex le­gal fight whose out­come will shape the fu­ture of busi­ness and the ex­pe­ri­ence of us­ing the In­ter­net.

The trans­for­ma­tion of In­ter­net ser­vice into a ba­sic ne­ces­sity for many Amer­i­cans has forced In­ter­net providers to look else­where for growth. Many broad­band com­pa­nies view TV, film and on­line con­tent as the an­swer: By buy­ing up me­dia firms, ISPs can cre­ate big­ger bun­dles to sell to cus­tomers. They can also mine their cus­tomers’ be­hav­ioral data and ei­ther sell those in­sights to mar­keters or use them for ad­ver­tis­ing pur­poses.

Con­sumer ad­vo­cates fear that many of these new busi­ness prac­tices may harm con­sumers or start-ups, par­tic­u­larly if large providers choose to priv­i­lege their own con­tent — or that of fa­vored part­ners — to the detri­ment of com­pet­ing firms. Only strong, pre­emp­tive rules can ward off these harms, they ar­gue.

But Pai and many In­ter­net providers say that the rules are oner­ous and dis­cour­age com­pa­nies from spend­ing money on their net­works to pro­vide faster and bet­ter ser­vice. That charge has sparked a fu­ri­ous de­bate over how the commission’s rules have af­fected broad­band in­vest­ment.

Lob­by­ists on both sides of the is­sue have pro­duced duel­ing stud­ies on the mat­ter, each claim­ing to more ac­cu­rately rep­re­sent re­al­ity than the other.

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