FCC Makes First Move Toward Weakening Net Neutrality Protections

Managing Editor

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday took an initial step toward rolling back regulations adopted two years ago that were designed to protect “net neutrality.”  The agency’s shift is drawing strong objections from school and advocacy organizations, who fear it will impede access to valuable online content.

Net neutrality is the principle that all content delivered via the web be treated equally by Internet service providers—rather than allowing those companies to deliver some materials at faster speeds, while throttling or blocking other content.

In 2015, the FCC took steps meant to protect net neutrality by reclassifying broadband service as subject to regulations under Title II of the Communications Act and section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. Regulations approved by the agency forbade internet providers from creating of “fast lanes” for delivering internet content, and from degrading or slowing other content.

Those measures drew praise from many open Internet and consumer groups. They were passed under the direction of then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, an appointee of President Obama, and approved by a five-member commission led by Democrats, over objections from broadband providers.

The political landscape has been upended since then. President Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, Republican Chairman Ajit Pai, sees the FCC’s earlier actions as federal overreach, and since taking direction of the commission he has moved to dismantle the earlier rules.

Pai has argued that the Wheeler-era policy will restrict business innovations by internet service providers, that the Title II provisions rest on a dubious legal foundation, and that they impose a level of regulation on the web was unnecessary, to begin with. While broadband providers generally applaud Pai’s position, many Silicon Valley providers oppose it, saying it will harm web users’ experience.

“Do we want the government to control the internet? Or do we want to embrace the light-touch approach established by President Clinton and a Republican Congress in 1996 and repeatedly reaffirmed by Democratic and Republican FCCs alike?” Pai said in a speech last last month.

The vote this week was a first step in reversing the two-year-old policy. The FCC said in a statement that it beginning the process of “restoring internet freedom and promoting infrastructure investment, innovation, and choice.”

Specifically, the FCC’s decisions this week gave initial approval to a notice of proposed rulemaking that would reverse the FCC’s decision two years ago. It would eliminate the Title II regulation on internet service providers and regulate them under what the agency describes as “light-touch” policies included in Title I of the federal Communications Act.

The statement released by the FCC said the goal was to curtail “utility-style regulation” of the internet, in a move that would benefit “consumers and the marketplace.” Under Wheeler, the agency had rejected the idea it was trying to regulate the web like a utility.

The FCC approved going forward with the notice by a 2-1 vote, with Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly voting in favor and Democrat Mignon Clyburn opposed. The FCC said it is seeking comment from the public on whether the FCC should “keep, modify, or eliminate” the earlier commission policy.

After taking in comments, the FCC is expected to approve a final policy at an unspecified time.

Wave of Public Interest

Organizations supporting ed-tech and schools have raised a number of concerns about efforts to weaken net neutrality. One worry is that deep-pocketed organizations would be able to streamline the delivery of content over the web, while those that cannot afford to supercharge delivery–such as providers of online K-12 content–would be relegated to a slow lane.

Critics of the FCC’s reversal also worry that schools’ ability to stream online resources requiring heavy bandwidth, like education videos, could also be hindered by the new policy.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

Another concern voiced some ed-tech companies that without equal treatment of content, the biggest and wealthiest digital providers will have a leg up in delivering material to school districts, while smaller, potentially innovative upstarts will struggle to get resources into schools.

The vote drew a sharply critical response from the American Library Association, whose members include many K-12 librarians.

Schools and their libraries have become increasingly reliant on digital textbooks and other resources, and they need to be available on demand and without interruption, said Julie Todaro, president of the association, in an interview. The FCC’s action imperils that goal, she said.

Digital materials “are becoming the cornerstone of the education process,” Todaro said. “They have to be deployed in [increasingly] fast, equitable environments.”

Todaro also said she worried that weakening net neutrality protections would hinder the use of open educational resources—free, sharable, re-mixable materials often housed online and widely used in K-12 schools. Creators of those resources might not have the money to ensure their fast delivery, and “if the speed isn’t there, it places them in jeopardy.”

Tracy Weeks, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, said she worried about the impact on schools that already struggle to provide large numbers of students with online access at the same time. Recent FCC policy changes to the E-rate program can potentially help schools meet that demand, said Weeks. The new policy, she said, could be a big step backward.

“If all the kids in the class are getting videos at the same time, there could be a real spike in the use of broadband,” she said. But schools’ online access might, in theory, “then be throttled back or result in schools having to pay more for that premium level of access.”

When the FCC took up the net neutrality issue two years ago, it unleashed a torrent of public interest, the vast majority of it seemingly in favor of protecting neutrality. The television comic John Oliver was one such voice urging the FCC to not allow fast-and-slow lanes. Oliver has taken up the cause again and recently asked his viewers to make their opinion known to the agency (and later reminded them to do so with civility).

The voices opposing the recent FCC’s action under Pai include not only consumer and internet advocacy groups but celebrities like director Francis Ford Coppola, who says the loss of net neutrality poses a threat to innovation and artisic expression.

In an interview with EdWeek’s Benjamin Herold last month, the former FCC chairman, Wheeler, argued that some of the fears voiced by the K-12 community are legit.

“If you don’t have a fast, fair and open Internet, how can you provide the kind of access to information that students need?” Wheeler said, adding: “The reality is that absent the Open Internet rules, there’s nobody on the case if and when something like that happens. Internet service providers are left to make the rules. And that’s not good for anybody but the ISPs.”

Photo: Federal Communication Commission Commissioner Ajit Pai –Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP-File

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