Net Neutrality: The Pai-nal countdown

If the calendar is to be believed,  the Federal Communications Commission, led by Ajit Pai, will be voting within the next two weeks to throw out perfectly good, functioning, sane net neutrality regulations in the name of turning internet service into a takeout menu.

Tim Wu writes in the New York Times that it’s all but inevitable the new net neutrality regulations about to be enshrined by the Republican-led FCC will end up in court.

“(A) broadband carrier like AT&T, if it wanted, might even practice internet censorship akin to that of the Chinese state, blocking its critics and promoting its own agenda,” he says.

“Allowing such censorship is anathema to the internet’s (and America’s) founding spirit. And by going this far, the FCC may also have overplayed its legal hand. So drastic is the reversal of policy (if, as expected the commission approves Mr. Pai’s proposal…), and so weak is the evidence to support the change, that it seems destined to be struck down in court.”

Remember, of course that, the current net neutrality regulations, in place since 2015, are themselves the result of a series of court cases, including a trip nearly to the Supreme Court which triggered the FCC under the leadership of former chair Tom Wheeler, to classify the internet as a utility. This means no one gets to charge more for better access to the same superhighway of information, videos, music, information or whatever else your heart wants to find online.

Not only would the proposed regulation toss out that classification, it would allow internet service providers (ISPs) to divvy up websites into packages, like your cable subscription. Fun, right?

“The problem for Mr. Pai is that government agencies are not free to abruptly reverse longstanding rules on which many have relied without a good reason, such as a change in factual circumstances,” Wu continues. “A mere change in FCC ideology isn’t enough. As the Supreme Court has said, a federal agency must ‘examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its actions.’ Given that net neutrality rules have been a huge success by most measures, the justification for killing them would have to be very strong.”

Spoiler alert: They’re not.

Pai has been criticized up one side of the internet and down the other and he’s…. well, he’s not taking it well. At all.

In fact, he’s reacting kind of exactly the way his boss, the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (when he’s not at a golf course, that is) would react: He’s spouting off in public and being grumpy.

“Now look, I love Twitter. But let’s not kid ourselves; when it comes to a free and open internet, Twitter is a part of the problem. The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate,” writes Tony Romm at Recode.

Pai was speaking at an event in Washington, D.C., last week and pointed the finger at Hollywood. Shocker.

“Hollywood celebrities, whose large online followings give them out-sized influence in shaping the public debate,” Pai reportedly said.

Let’s remember who the president is, shall we? Dude who starred in a reality show. Ok. Got it.

Anyway, Jessica Rosenworcel is an FCC commissioner. She’s a Democratic member. And she’s asking the public to stop her boss from making a mess of things.

In a post for the LA Times, She calls the proposed changes “a lousy idea. And it deserves a heated response from the millions of Americans who work and create online every day.”

“Proponents of wiping out these rules think that by allowing broadband providers more control and the ability to charge for premium access, it will spur investment,” she writes. “This is a dubious proposition.”

She continues: “Wiping out net neutrality would have big consequences… Your provider would have the power to choose which voices online to amplify and which to censor. The move could affect everything online, including the connections we make and the communities we create. This is not the internet experience we know today. Americans should prevent the plan from becoming the law of the land.”

And, Canada, don’t forget that this will mess things up for you too: As Michael Geist writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail, while the impact of new regulations would be indirect for Canadians, the pain would be shared.

“Canadian consumers may be shielded from net neutrality abuses, but the effects on the US decisions may still be felt north of the border. Since Canadian internet traffic often transits through the United States, there are concerns that Canadian data could get caught by non-neural policies,” he writes. “Moreover, Canadian internet services hoping to attract US customers may face demands for payments to have their content delivered on the fast track. Since the renegotiations of the North American free-trade agreement include a chapter on digital trade, Canadian negotiators should be pushing for the inclusion of a strong, enforceable net neutrality provision.”

Stay tuned. Americans, make those calls and send those emails. Canadians, be vigilant and encourage your American friends to get busy.

Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

Amber Healy has 522 posts and counting. See all posts by Amber Healy

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