FCC Chair Confirms Plan to Reinstate Net Neutrality Rules Eviscerated Under Trump

Yves here. For the technically-minded, below is a slightly more detailed discussion of FCC internet service provider designation that the agency plans to restore to its pre-2017 status. The very short version is that the former designation of broadband providers as falling under Title II severely restricted their ability to throttle bandwidth and traffic-discriminate, while Title I allows them to act as gatekeeper. From the Center for Democracy and Technology, arguing against the 2017 rule change that took place and the FCC now intends to roll back:

From a regulatory perspective, the heart of the net neutrality debate is about how the FCC classifies broadband internet access. This classification determines which part of the Communications Act (the Act) applies to ISPs and the scope of authority the FCC may use to regulate providers. Two years ago, after a decade of struggling to regulate ISPs under Title I of the Act, the FCC reclassified broadband internet access as a “telecommunications service.” As providers of telecommunications services, ISPs are subject to regulation under Title II of the Act. Now, Chairman Pai wants to reverse that classification, making broadband internet access an “information service” under Title I of the Act. So why all the fuss? To oversimplify, Title II explicitly provides the FCC authority to protect consumers and online businesses against “unjust or unreasonable” practices of ISPs. Title I does not….

Let’s break down the legal and policy arguments for both classifications and discuss their ramifications:

The legal arguments boil down to which definition provides a better fit for internet access. The Act defines “telecommunications” as “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received.” When you click a link from your browser, the ISP delivers your message (“I want to see the information at this address”) to the host’s server, which then sends that information back to you. These messages are packaged by your computer, and the host’s server, as one or more packets, each of which is stamped with your respective addresses and other handling information. The ISP transmits the packets through its network, which connects your computer to the rest of the internet, carrying them from your computer to websites and services based on your direction.

Compare that to an “information service,” which provides the “capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications.” In the earlier days of the internet, before the explosion of third parties who now offer countless options for each of these activities, ISPs offered services like email, web hosting, and news aggregation. And because these services weren’t as widely available, many people used these included services and perhaps thought of internet access and the various additional services as one and the same. It’s true that ISPs still provide these additional services, and some customers may still use them, but for most internet users, ISPs are simply a conduit between them and the rest of the internet.

In the NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) released by Chairman Pai, the FCC argues that internet access should be considered an information service. More specifically, the agency argues that because internet access allows people to connect to third parties that offer options for “generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information,” it provides the “capability for” those activities. By this logic, which conflates capability with access to capability, any communication technology could be considered an information service. Do ISPs offer information services? Yes. Is the internet access provided by an ISP an information service? Definitely not….

CDT, along with other internet advocates, edge providers, and the vast majority of internet users believe that some oversight and consumer protections are necessary to prevent ISPs from leveraging their gatekeeper positions (you have to go through them to reach the rest of the internet) in ways that harm consumers and competition among edge providers. We believe that, in the absence of enforceable rules, ISPs have both the ability and the incentives to do this in a variety of ways, such as charging edge providers to prioritize their traffic (paid prioritization) or using data caps and zero rating to push users towards the content and services of ISPs and their affiliates.

By Jessica Corbett, staff writer at Common Dreams. Originally published at Common Dreams

Open internet advocates across the United States celebrated on Tuesday as Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel announced her highly anticipated proposal to reestablish FCC oversight of broadband and restore net neutrality rules.

“We thank the FCC for moving swiftly to begin the process of reinstating net neutrality regulations,” said ACLU senior policy counsel Jenna Leventoff. “The internet is our nation’s primary marketplace of ideas—and it’s critical that access to that marketplace is not controlled by the profit-seeking whims of powerful telecommunications giants.”

Rosenworcel—appointed to lead the commission by President Joe Biden—discussed the history of net neutrality and her new plan to treat broadband as a public utility in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., which came on the heels of the U.S. Senate’s recent confirmation of Anna Gomez to a long-vacant FCC seat.

Back in 2005, “the agency made clear that when it came to net neutrality, consumers should expect that their broadband providers would not block, throttle, or engage in paid prioritization of lawful internet traffic,” she recalled. “In other words, your broadband provider had no business cutting off access to websites, slowing down internet services, and censoring online speech.”

After a decade of policymaking and litigation, net neutrality rules were finalized in 2015. However, a few years later—under former FCC Chair Ajit Pai, an appointee of ex-President Donald Trump—the commission caved to industry pressure and repealed them.

“The public backlash was overwhelming. People lit up our phone lines, clogged our email inboxes, and jammed our online comment system to express their disapproval,” noted Rosenworcel, who was a commissioner at the time and opposed the repeal. “So today we begin a process to make this right.”

The chair is proposing to reclassify broadband under Title II of the Communications Act, which “is the part of the law that gives the FCC clear authority to serve as a watchdog over the communications marketplace and look out for the public interest,” she explained. “Title II took on special importance in the net neutrality debate because the courts have ruled that the FCC has clear authority to enforce open internet policies if broadband internet is classified as a Title II service.”

“On issue after issue, reclassifying broadband as a Title II service would help the FCC serve the public interest more efficiently and effectively,” she pointed out, detailing how it relates to public safety, national security, cybersecurity, network resilience and reliability, privacy, broadband deployment, and robotexts.

Rosenworcel intends to release the full text of the proposal on Thursday and hold a vote regarding whether to kick off rulemaking on October 19. While Brendan Carr, one of the two Republican commissioners, signaled his opposition to the Title II approach on Tuesday, Gomez’s confirmation earlier this month gives Democrats a 3-2 majority at the FCC.

“Giant corporations and their lobbyists blocked President Biden from filling the final FCC seat for more than two years, and they will try every trick to block or delay the agency from restoring net neutrality now,” Demand Progress communications director Maria Langholz warned Tuesday. “The commission must remain resolute and fully restore free and open internet protections to ensure broadband service providers like Comcast and Verizon treat all content equally.”

“Americans’ internet experience should not be at the whims of corporate executives whose primary concerns are the pockets of their stakeholders and the corporations’ bottom line,” she added, also applauding the chair.

Free Press co-CEO Jessica J. González similarly praised Rosenworcel and stressed that “without Title II, broadband users are left vulnerable to discrimination, content throttling, dwindling competition, extortionate and monopolistic prices, billing fraud, and other shady behavior.”

“As this proceeding gets under way, we will hear all manner of lies from the lobbyists and lawyers representing big phone and cable companies,” she predicted. “They’ll say anything and everything to avoid being held accountable. But broadband providers and their spin doctors are deeply out of touch with people across the political spectrum, who are fed up with high prices and unreliable services. These people demand a referee on the field to call fouls and issue penalties when broadband companies are being unfair.”

Like Rosenworcel, in her Tuesday speech, González also highlighted that “one thing we learned from the Covid-19 pandemic is that broadband is essential infrastructure—it enables us to access education, employment, healthcare, and more.”

That “more” includes civic engagement, as leaders at Common Cause noted Tuesday. Ishan Mehta, who directs the group’s Media and Democracy Program, said that “the internet has fundamentally changed how people are civically engaged and is critical to participating in society today. It is the primary communications platform, a virtual public square, and has been a powerful organizing tool, allowing social justice movements to gain momentum and widespread support.”

After the Trump-era repeal, Mehta explained, “we saw broadband providers throttle popular video streaming services, degrade video quality, forcing customers to pay higher prices for improved quality, offer service plans that favor their own services over competitors, and make hollow, voluntary, and unenforceable promises not to disconnect their customers during the pandemic.”

Given how broadband providers have behaved, Michael Copps, a Common Cause special adviser and former FCC commissioner, said that “to allow a handful of monopoly-aspiring gatekeepers to control access to the internet is a direct threat to our democracy.”

Rosenworcel’s speech came a day after U.S. Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) led over two dozen of their colleagues in sending a letter calling for the restoration of net neutrality protections. The pair said in a statement Tuesday that “broadband is not a luxury. It is an essential utility and it is imperative that the FCC’s authority reflects the necessary nature of the internet in Americans’ lives today.”

“We need net neutrality so that small businesses are not shoved into online slow lanes, so that powerful social media companies cannot stifle competition, and so that users can always freely speak their minds on social media and advocate for the issues that are most important to them,” they said. “We applaud Chairwoman Rosenworcel for her leadership and look forward to working with the FCC to ensure a just broadband future for everyone.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. britzklieg

    Ajit Pai:

    “He joined the FCC as a lawyer in its Office of General Counsel in 2007. He was nominated to be a commissioner in 2011 by President Barack Obama, who followed tradition in preserving balance on the commission by accepting the recommendation of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He was confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate on May 7, 2012, and was sworn in on May 14, 2012, for a five-year term.


    Ain’t bi-partisanship wonderful!!!

    1. Hepativore

      Tom Wheeler was all set to do the same thing that Ajit Pai did, until he changed his mind at the last minute because of the uproar. Ajit Pai basically ignored everybody in the commentary period and got rid of internet neutrality despite it being a clear example of “arbitrary and capricious” regulation.

  2. John R Moffett

    Changing to Title II sounds great, but in the end depends entirely on enforcement. If ISPs are reclassified, but no enforcement is forthcoming, then it is a meaningless change. So if the FCC is mostly captured, as are other government regulatory agencies, then enforcement will be weak, selective and mostly ineffective.

    1. TimH

      Ruminating over this a bit… I don’t think Title II will be returned.

      The censorship industrial complex loses the ability to quietly block access to material at the ISP end under common carrier, because the ISPs won’t be legally able to restrict arbitrarily.

  3. Carolinian

    Hypocrisy thy name is the Biden administration? They lower the boom on the increasingly irrelevant ISPs even as they secretly demand censorship, shadow banning and other forms of throttling from social media.

    Plus one form of throttling is to charge so much for your service that many can’t or choose not to afford it, and the FCC is doing nothing about our hugely overpriced (by world standards) internet. Yes they say they will subsidize the poor and rural but by bribing the telecoms to serve them.

    1. Carolinian

      BTW Walmart has just announced that they will offer a new prepaid phone and internet plan starting at $4 per month with addon charges for usage and an AI element to spybot the whole thing…..oh sorry I meant to help steer customers to their preferred sites says Walmart. It should be up and running by the end of the year. Uses Verizon network.

      So our two tier internet system is coming down to those paying the cable company gouge or those scrimping with smartphones. The big FCC debate about broadband may be passing much of the populace by.

  4. TimH

    This is just another DNC “try” activity. Nothing will actually get approved as law or policy before the election.

    1. Oh

      It’s all posing by the Biden Administration just in time to make it look like he’s helping the public before the elections. BIden’s joining the Union picket like for the photo opportunity for the same reason.

  5. marku52

    Well done JoeB. 100% of the comments here correctly suspect that this is just optics, and nothing will change. Well, that is what Joe promised, wasn’t it?

    Your government inaction.

Comments are closed.