FCC Chair Seeks to Overturn ‘Net Neutrality’ Rules, With Implications for K-12

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

The Federal Communications Commission is moving ahead with long-anticipated plans to dismantle “net neutrality” protections, a decision that has potentially big implications for the work of schools and ed-tech providers.

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 resources.

Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has repeatedly denounced the existing net neutrality policy, laid out the basic parameters of a plan to upend it on Tuesday.

The chairman said he will release a full proposal tomorrow, to allow for more than three weeks of public review before a Dec. 14 vote by the commission.

Odds favor passage of the measure, given that Republicans have a majority on the FCC panel.

In a statement, Pai argued that his plan will “restore Internet freedom” and that it amounts to a “light-touch, market-based framework” for regulating Internet providers.

“I have shared with my colleagues a draft order that would abandon this failed approach [in previous FCC policy] and return to the longstanding consensus that served consumers well for decades,” Pai said. “Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the Internet.”

The FCC’s current policy on net neutrality, adopted in 2015, prevents telecommunications providers from creating fast or slow lanes for content. In its order, the then-Democratic majority took steps 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.

The regulations approved by the agency—over the strong objections of the telecommunications industry—prevent internet providers from creating “fast lanes” for delivering web content and slowing other content.

School and library officials worry that if those protections are curtailed, deep-pocketed companies could pay to have their content delivered more quickly, while the flow of other online resources for educational purposes would be slowed or otherwise diminished.

School officials are not the only ones worried about overturning the net neutrality policy. Some ed-tech advocates are concerned that smaller education companies and startups that rely on fast delivery of content could suffer if better-resourced competitors can pay for superior delivery.

Pai, who was named to the post by President Trump, has said the net neutrality protections discourage innovation by telecoms, and that Democrats on the FCC overstepped legally in imposing the regulations.

The FCC’s earlier 2015 action has “depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks, and deterred innovation,” Pai said in his statement today.

The Republican added that the FCC’s vote was delivered “on a party-line vote [and] imposed heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the Internet.” He maintained that the commission has “bowed to pressure from President Obama.”

Obama publicly backed using the “strongest possible rules” to protect a free and open Internet. Trump has headed in another direction. In July, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Trump administration backed Pai’s plans to “review and consider rolling back” earlier FCC rules, adding that Congress should act to provide clarity on the issue.

Fear of ‘Classes’ of Internet Users

Pai’s opposition to net neutrality has roiled consumer advocates, who have staged broad campaigns meant to rally public opposition to his plans.

In May, the FCC under Pai gave its initial approval to a notice of proposed rulemaking that would reverse the agency neutrality protections two years ago. That plan drew millions of public comments.

Pai said under his new proposal, another agency — the Federal Trade Commission — would be the entity asked to police misbehavior by internet services providers and to protect consumers. The FCC, for its part, would focus instead on requiring internet service providers to be transparent about their practices, so that consumers can shop for the plans they want and entrepreneurs and small businesses can “have the technical information they need to innovate,” the chairman said.

The acting chair of the FTC, Maureen K. Ohlhausen, announced her support for Pai’s plan. Ohlhausen is a Trump appointee and a critic of the FCC’s previous net neutrality protections.

“The FTC stands ready to protect broadband subscribers from anticompetitive, unfair, or deceptive acts and practices just as we protect consumers in the rest of the Internet ecosystem,” she said.

Pai’s proposal drew a negative review from Jim Neal, the president of the American Library Association. Many of his group’s 57,000 members are K-12 librarians who see the free flow of online information as vital, particularly in districts where other educational resources have been lost to budget cuts.

“One of our core values is equity of access to information,” Neal said. “One thing that schools have been able to depend on is that access to the Internet would not be eroded or undermined…We don’t want to create different classes of Internet users.”

Responding to media reports over the past week about FCC plans to upend the policy on net neutrality, Craig Aaron, the president and CEO of the advocacy group Free Press, urged opponents to make their objections known.

“We’ll learn the gory details in the next few days, but we know that Pai intends to dismantle the basic protections that have fueled the internet’s growth,” Aaron said. “And that means that however you use the internet— to organize, to tell stories, to talk to your family, to make a living—now is the time to make your voice heard and oppose this attack on free expression, choice, and innovation.”

This post has been updated with details of the FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal on net neutrality.

Photo: Pai speaks during the National Association of Broadcasters trade show in Las Vegas in April. —Ethan Miller/Getty-File

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