Trump’s FCC Goes to War on Net Neutrality

Yves here. NC readers, this Real News Network segment on net neutrality discusses an issue that affects you directly. The Trump Administration says it plans to ignore public comments, which would seem to open up the ruling to a procedural challenge by anyone who had standing.

AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, wants to end the principle of a free and open internet. This week, Pai announced the plan to undo rules that bar internet providers from controlling how we access the web. The rules Pai is targeting prevent providers from doing things like slowing down or blocking content as they see fit. Pai announced this plan to the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal.

AJIT PAI: It is essentially in my proposal to repeal the Obama administration’s heavy-handed regulations adopted two years ago in a party line vote that regulated the internet. What I’m proposing to do is to get rid of those regulations, and to return to the bipartisan light touch framework that governed the internet, starting in the Clinton administration and continuing all the way to 2015.

AARON MATÉ: Pai’s plan would undo the net neutrality rules that were won in 2015 after years of grass roots activism. I’m joined now by Kit Walsh, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Welcome Kit. What is Pai up to here?

KIT WALSH: Hi. Thank you for having me. So what Pai is doing is, for the first time, removing the protections for net neutrality that have kept the internet open. So he is doing a wholesale rollback of the protections that we, a coalition of public interest organizations, and millions of internet users won in 2015. And there’s a bit of trickery going on when the opponents of net neutrality say that this is going back to the way it was before. That’s just not true. In the very early days of the internet, when you got your internet access over phone lines, those phone lines were subject to non-discrimination rules under the same legal framework that is implicated in the 2015 open internet order. And so, that was why you were able to use your phone to call up a dial up ISP. There were thousands of ISPs, you didn’t just have to get your internet from ATT. And they weren’t able to stop you from putting a modem on your phone line.

So the internet grew, thanks to non-discrimination rules like net neutrality. Then broadband came along and there was a fight about how to classify it. This is within the FCC’s discretion. They can say we’re going to treat broadband just like any other telecommunications service, but what they chose to do instead is to treat it like what’s called an information service, which it’s really not. What that meant is you no longer had the kind of protections that the 2015 open internet order established. Instead, you had a decade of going back and forth, where the FCC would try to protect net neutrality in some way. Comcast would sue them, get it struck down. They tried another way, Verizon sued them and got it struck down. Finally, they did it the right way, the legally supportable way, which is what we and our allies and internet users urged them to do. So, this was a victory for the grassroots, like you said. And what Ajit Pai is doing now is rolling back that victory, and for the first time saying it’s open season.

ISPs can, as long as they’re transparent about it, they can discriminate with respect to who’s able to speak online, what services you can use, what information you can access, and they can create fast lanes and slow lanes that favor their own content or the content of paying partners.

AARON MATÉ: Right, so what this means for example … say, I say at the Real News, we put out our stuff on the web. If these rules are rolled back, could internet providers charge us more money to deliver this faster? And if we don’t pay up, that would mean that our audience doesn’t experience the Real News as fast as, say, a site that pays up does?

KIT WALSH: Right. Absolutely. So, for instance, Comcast owns a share in Universal Media Company. AT&T has its own streaming media platform. Verizon briefly had a news platform where they said that people were not to discuss net neutrality or mass surveillance, because that was contrary to their corporate interests. So, what companies can do if this proposed order goes through is they’ll be able to threaten to block access to your website. So they’ll say, “Hey Real News, it would be a shame if you could no longer reach Verizon customers. Why don’t you pay us an extra fee?” And short of that, they can say, “We’re going to speed up our own news content. It’s gonna be a better experience for people. And your connection is going to be degraded.” That connection that internet subscribers are already paying for … they’re gonna put road bumps in the way so, when they go to watch the Real News, they’re not able to get a high quality stream. They have to make do with less bandwidth or it’s less reliable.

AARON MATÉ: Right. Well let me go back to more if Ajit Pai and his comments to the Daily Signal, which is the website of the Heritage Foundation. And he mentioned that argument that you claimed where he’s saying that he just simply wants to reinstate the old rules, go back to the old days. And he actually said that this measure will actually help increase the quality of internet service. This is what he said.

AJIT PAI: The fundamental issue with internet access that people have in America today is not that their internet service provider is blocking access to lawful content. It’s that they don’t have the fast, cheap internet … the service that they want. And so that’s why repealing these heavy handed regulations on internet service providers will give them a much stronger business case for spending scarce capital building up these networks.

AARON MATÉ: So, that’s Ajit Pai, the chair of the FCC. I should note … so, he was speaking to the Heritage Foundation. And it seems like every time he announces a major rollback of net neutrality, he does so to right wing groups like Heritage. The time before this, if I recall right, he made an announcement to Freedom Works, which is a group funded by the Koch Brothers. But Kit Walsh, if you could respond to what he’s saying there. This is gonna actually free up much needed capital to help improve broadband.

KIT WALSH: So, it’s interesting because those are the arguments that the lawyers for the ISPs made when they went to the FCC and argued that these rules should be rolled back, but that’s not what their CEO said to investors when they had a legal obligation to tell the truth. When the open internet order came into effect, they said it wasn’t going to affect investment. And we’ve also seen … one of the things that reduces infrastructure investment is the fact that there are fewer and fewer competitors in this space. Most Americans don’t have choices for broadband. There have been a series of mergers in this space. Sprint was trying to acquire T-Mobile, and when that deal fell through they said, “Well, all the money we were going to use for that acquisition, we’re going to pour it into investment instead.” Because there’s competition, a need to invest, and that’s a good use of their capital.

So I think the idea that the rules, which are actually saying keep offering non-discriminatory internet service the way you have from the very beginning … the idea that that’s heavy handed or burdensome or is gonna decrease investment is just not supported and not true. You made an interesting point also about Ajit Pai making these announcements to right wing groups. It’s actually very difficult to find ordinary Americans who oppose net neutrality. Among Republicans, it’s a 73 percent approval of net neutrality, even more if you don’t call it net neutrality. And among Democrats, it’s 80 percent support. The only place where there’s not bipartisan support is unfortunately in Washington DC, in the halls of Congress.

AARON MATÉ: Right. Interestingly, the attorney general of New York, Eric Schneiderman, just wrote to Ajit Pai saying that he’s been investigating thousands of fraudulent comments that were submitted about net neutrality rules as part of the public comment process. And he had some interesting findings. Can you talk about what happened there?

KIT WALSH: Sure. So in the previous cycle, back in 2015. We broke records for comments to the FCC. And the overwhelming majority were in favor of protecting net neutrality with legally enforceable rules, which ultimately it did. This cycle, there were a lot of comments from both sides. There were some form letters, many of which are people legitimately agreeing with the content of those form letters, some maybe not. And under any measure, the FCC has acknowledged that the majority favored net neutrality and keeping the existing scheme. And an analysis that was done by the ISPs themselves, which you would expect to favor their side, actually found that of all the people who went to the FCC website, who bothered to type in their own unique comments, 98 percent favored net neutrality.

So, it’s very clear that public sentiment is on the side of keeping these rules. People are not interested in handing over control of what they’re able to read and do online to their internet service providers.

AARON MATÉ: Right. So finally, on that front, the FCC vote is next month in December. What is already happening to pressure them, and what can be done in the weeks until that vote?

KIT WALSH: So, yesterday was the day that Ajit Pai announced his intentions clearly. And just that day alone, our coalition drove 175,000 calls to Congress. Congress is the place where the FCC vote can be stopped right now. So the today’s announcement is just a proposed order. They’re going to vote December 14th. FCC votes have been stopped in the past. And if we keep melting down the phone lines at Congress, that’s our best shot.

AARON MATÉ: Kit Walsh, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Thank you.

KIT WALSH: Thank you very much.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    If you want to know what the internet will look like after net neutrality has been destroyed, take a look at Portugal for that (
    Unless you live in the right region in the US, it will kill any small business that relies on a good internet connection IMHO. On the bright side, as the plebs won’t be able to afford so much internet, that will leave more internet bandwidth for the ‘right people’ so, win-win?
    Begun the Net Neutrality Wars has!

  2. Taras 77

    Fairly blatant in your face theft by telecoms, those with big bucks lobby orgs. But who can be surprised.

    The link in the post above on Portugal should do it for any average user but problem, with so much BS being thrown up by FCC and its handlers, average user out there may not be getting enough true info to get exercised to call congress.

    BTW, excellent interview!

  3. IsotopeC14

    “Free Market” = enslaved consumers. More than a handful of gamers have made the point that good indie games like path of exile might be targeted by Blizzard. All they have to do is pay Comcast to throttle those games and you are forced to play Diablo. Seems like the ruling elites are too ignorant that bread and circuses only work when you give them circuses.

    I wonder how all the American gamers who dumped thousands into a free to play game are going to react? Perhaps they will be exiled to Canada for decent speeds.

    1. fajensen

      Perhaps they will be exiled to Canada for decent speeds.

      The US regime will just use some form of Free Trade Agreement or bought-up subsidiaries to mop up such blatantly unfair competition!

      Now, what I actually quite like about Donald Trump is that it will be difficult for the political leadership to kiss his ring in public, like the good little vassals they really are, as they have been doing with all American presidents at least since the collapse of the USSR (where they were also keeping a low profile, just in case).

      They have to be sneaky about it, and sneaky takes time, and if found out, popular support will be los and egg will be on facest. Thus, in his Unique Way, The Donald is making my part of the world both Safer and Better.

      It sucks to be “you”, of course, but, once the American people finally get stirred into a coordinated action, I believe they will manage to change things. Identity Politics is the barrier, once that mind-lock spell is burst ….

      1. JCC

        I wouldn’t be so sure about that. “The Donald” is the guy that put Obama’s Ajit Pai in charge of the FCC, and Ajit Pai is the guy who stated Public Comments would be ignored and that he was instituting a free internet “for the people” through elimination of Network Neutrality.

        I’m still waiting for The Donald to push back on this complete disregard for the 99%.

        Don’t worry, I won’t hold my breath.

        1. fajensen

          Of course being a man of no principles in particular, he is not going to reverse precisely that piece of Obama’s policies. But Donald Trump is so uncouth and brazen about it that “my” leadership is not happy to be seen being too aligned with Donald Trump in public. This buys time.

    2. Massinissa

      “Seems like the ruling elites are too ignorant that bread and circuses only work when you give them circuses.”

      They seem to think they can control people better if they can directly control the circuses.

      But they don’t seem to realize they cant give the people circuses and extract insane rents from them at the same time. EA has learned that the hard way with their recent bad press for their Star Wars game, which was nothing but rent extraction on the players writ large.

      And triple A game companies wonder why indie games are eating into their market share…

  4. Carolinian

    Congress is the place where the FCC vote can be stopped right now.

    And arguably it’s Congress which should be making rules on this since they created the whole mess with the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

    The Consumers Union also raises one other major point. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 did not foster competition among ILECs as the bill had hoped. Instead, of ILECs encroaching on each other, the opposite occurred – mergers. Before the 1996 Act was passed, the largest four ILECs owned less than half of all the lines in the country while, five years later, the largest four local telephone companies owned about 85% of all the lines in the country.[22]

    Robert Crandall has argued that the forced-access provisions of the 1996 Act have had little economic value, and that the primary, sustainable competitive forces in phone and related, non-‘radio’, telecommunications are the wireline telephone companies, the cable companies, and the wireless companies.

    The Act was claimed to foster competition. Instead, it continued the historic industry consolidation reducing the number of major media companies from around 50 in 1983 to 10 in 1996[23] and 6 in 2005.[24] An FCC study found that the Act had led to a drastic decline in the number of radio station owners, even as the actual number of commercial stations in the United States had increased.[25] This decline in owners and increase in stations has reportedly had the effect of radio homogenization, where programming has become similar across formats.

    Also it’s a bit hypocritical for Democrats to go on about Trump and web freedom when they themselves are trying to squelch what they call “fake news”–i.e. websites that challenge their looney Russia obsession.

  5. David

    IIRC, the last time this issue came up, it was really a turf war between the FCC and FTC,

    While it should not be dismissed that the FCC has a number of important consumer protection programs, the language of the FTC mission is undoubtedly more pro-consumer: ”prevent business practices that are anticompetitive, deceptive, or unfair to consumers”. The FTC has an entire ”Bureau of Economics” which is expert in quantifying consumer welfare. They have the tools and the expertise to evaluate the impact of net neutrality and to determine whether broadband providers are harming consumers.

    Each agency has a different approach,

    As for regulation, there is a difference in approach of each agency. The FCC takes ex-ante while the FTC takes ex-post. The ex-ante approach of regulation is pursued proactively in an attempt to eliminate harm before it happens. With ex-post, regulators take a wait-and-see position to assess whether there is even a need to intervene and then to strike with full force. Both approaches entail costs. The benefits of the ex-post approach are it is evidenced-based and regulatory costs are not incurred until there is a demonstrated need. Ex-ante regulation requires costs up front in communication, monitoring, and enforcement.

    Back in 2007, the FTC convened a task force on net neutrality and found little evidence that broadband providers were harming their customers.

    The FTC also brought up an important point that net neutrality supporters too often conveniently forget to mention: when it comes to discrimination, the network is the least of our worries. There is rampant discrimination on operating systems and software platforms. If we were really serious about net neutrality, we would have to put rules across the entire internet ecosystem: devices, applications, websites and so on. When you wipe away all the rhetoric about internet freedom, one finds that net neutrality is a thinly-veiled campaign against carriers.

    Wouldn’t a VPN circumvent data/site specific throttling/blocking by my ISP?

    1. Jack

      “Wouldn’t a VPN circumvent data/site specific throttling/blocking by my ISP?”
      A VPN might help if your ISP had been specifically targeted to be slowed down by a site. But if it is a question of paying more for faster access I don’t see how a VPN would help. All a VPN does is hide your ISP address, routing your internet access through a different server. Your ISP address then becomes that of the new server. I use a VPN all the time to hide from Google (I operate a digital marketing business) and sometimes to get around the paywall limits (limited free articles) on some websites. If your internet service provider is doing the throttling I don’t think that a VPN would help there either. It might not seem like it but the cable companies have a high level of sophistication in terms of what they can identify is occurring on your particular “line”.

      1. JCC


        It’s relatively easy for the outgoing service to recognize a VPN connection. Our (very large) DoD site blocks them all.

  6. flora

    Thanks for this post.
    Also, the ISPs have already hobbled 20 state legislatures to pass laws saying essentially that local towns and cities can’t offer their own ISP service as a public utility. Working to get these private ISP/ALEC written laws removed from state books is important. That would create openings for public municiple ISP providers to enter the field and more options for internet users. See if your state is in the following list (from 2014):

    First the ISPs monopolized service provision in local areas. Now they’re trying to monopolize service provision nation-wide, this time focusing on ‘what’ you see on the net, instead of ‘who’ may provide the net service. The ‘who’ has already been effectively monopolized in most locations. Monopolizing the net one part at a time.

    1. flora

      I know of 2 medium sized university towns that have explored creating a municipal ISP service, and are blocked by state laws from doing so.

      When national IPSs say, as referenced in the RNN video, that they just can’t afford to expand network infrastructure without the reversal of net neutrality laws, they are being hypocritical, imo. They have gone to lengths to stop local towns/cities from creating municipal ISPs and building out high speed local infrastructure.

      There’s no reason to believe the big ISPs intend to increase infrastructure (and costs) instead of charging higher prices (and profits) for bandwidth and speed on the infrastructure they currently have, even if they destroy net neutrality. (I saw this ‘monopoly price gouging and restricted access to necessary utility service’ game played by Enron in California.)

  7. Vatch

    Sending comments to the FCC obviously didn’t work, in part because the FCC commissioners aren’t elected. They’re nominated by a person who’s chosen by 538 electors. So the FCC is well insulated from representative democracy.

    But our Senators and Representatives do have to pay attention to the voters to a certain limited extent. People should contact the offices of their Senators and Representatives when the Thanksgiving holiday ends. People should demand that the Congressional Review Act be used to cancel the upcoming reversal of net neutrality. It will be hard to convince the Congress to do this, but if enough people call and write, it is possible.

    1. TimH

      So if dialup is covered by the old laws, and only broadband will be affected by this new ruling… what about DSL, particularly at speeds under the defined minimum for broadband?

      1. JCC

        They still end up going through the Big Four, whether DSL, Cable or, POTS (plain old telephone service).

        In other words, they still go through the backbone owned by the Big Four for all intents and purposes.

  8. TimH

    So if dialup is covered by the old laws, and only broadband will be affected by this new ruling… what about DSL, particularly at speeds under the defined minimum for broadband?

  9. TimH

    That’s the physical connection. I’m asking about the legal requirements. POTS phone has to work when the power goes out is a legal requirement, for example, possibly not so for cable service derived telephone service. PORS has laws wrapped around it due to it being defined as an essential service.

  10. DG

    I wont pay for anything and in fact will cancel the web in its entirety if it comes to this, I dont need it for anything.

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