WASHINGTON — Under President Donald Trump’s newly minted chairman, the Federal Communications Commission is altering regulations created to ensure internet service providers (ISPs) grant equal access to all web content — the rules commonly known as “net neutrality.”
The shift is part of an unspooling of FCC policies from the Obama administration. On Friday, new chairman Ajit Pai announced the end of “Lifeline,” a relatively new federal program created to help subsidize home internet and phone services for low-income households. Almost 13 million Americans were estimated to be eligible for the credit.
Tuesday’s action signals a major breakaway from the Obama-era FCC, which treated the internet as a public utility, creating policies like net neutrality to support that thinking.
Pai, who previously served as an FCC commissioner, has long embraced an adversarial view of many of those regulations. In a speech in December before his nomination as FCC chair, he expressed optimism that many of the FCC’s “outdated and unnecessary regulations” would soon be eliminated.
“I do believe that its days are numbered,’” Pai had said of the net neutrality order. “I’m hopeful that beginning next year, our general regulatory approach will be a more sober one that is guided by evidence, sound economic analysis, and a good dose of humility.”
The news could affect how streaming services are used, including Netflix.
Without net neutrality, an ISP such as Optimum, Verizon or Comcast could potentially slow down or block access to services like Netflix or Hulu, as many ISPs run competitive streaming services to which they hope to draw consumers. Comcast, for example, has its Xfinity TV app.
By slowing down stream speeds for services like Netflix, ISPs can give themselves key advantages.
First, frustrated users are likely to flock to their streaming products, and second, Netflix — unwilling to lose any of its 93 million subscribers — will be forced to pay the ISP for access to faster speeds.
This is called “paid prioritization,” and it’s a major threat to smaller, startup businesses, as it forces them to pony up to reach audiences.
“It becomes anti-competitive if they are charging websites for access to customers because the service provider has a large market share, as opposed to charging for real costs for managing the connection,” John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told U.S. News & World Report after the net neutrality rule was first passed.
But telecom companies and Republicans in Congress and in the FCC’s leadership saw the regulations as burdensome.
Some saw net neutrality’s implementation as the beginning of a slippery slope of FCC overreach, which ultimately could create a choke point for investment in telecommunications.
It’s unclear what a post-net neutrality internet will look like, or how it will affect many of the things most internet users consume — like web streamed video.
It’s also unknown whether net neutrality supporters might challenge its elimination in court. Net neutrality already survived a hearing before the U.S. Court of Appeals in June, when the telecommunications industry challenged it. It was ultimately upheld.
But with more than 100 key allies in favor of the policy, including Amazon, Google, Facebook, eBay and Etsy, Apple founder Steve Wozniak and inventor of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the fight over the open internet might head back to the courts.
There is certain to be plenty of controversy about the rollback.
During its consideration of the open internet order, the FCC received a record number of comments and emails — nearly 4 million.
Advocates, including immediate former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, believe that a similar outpouring of support from small businesses, big corporations and individuals will likely be the “battering ram” to push open a door that is “locked, latched, bolted, and welded right now.”
“Networks have always been crucial and broadband networks will define the 21st century,” Wheeler said recently. “How we connect defines who we are both commercially and culturally.
“Whether or not those networks are going to be controlled on a gateway basis by essentially four companies is an existential question for American commerce and culture. I am worried about what that future looks like.”
Editor’s note: This article originally stated that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had announced the end of “Lifeline.” The action taken actually impacts nine newly designated Lifeline providers, which Pai explained in a blog post on Wednesday.