The Federal Communications Commission voted 2-1 on Thursday to move forward with a proposal to roll back net neutrality protections. The rules were put in place by the agency during the Obama administration to keep the Internet open and fair.
The controversial vote is the first step in a lengthy process that could drag on well into the fall. The proposal now goes through an official public commenting period before a final vote is considered.
Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC, said the vote would kick off a conversation about how to “best maintain a free and open Internet” while ensuring Internet providers “have strong incentives to bring next-generation networks and services to all Americans.”
“This is beginning of the process, not the end,” Pai said Thursday.
The net neutrality rules, approved by the FCC in 2015, prevent Internet providers from playing favorites by deliberately speeding up or slowing down traffic from specific websites and apps. Comcast (CCV), for example, can’t allow its own video content to load faster than content from a competing video site like Netflix (NFLX, Tech30) or Vimeo.
As part of the 2015 process, the FCC voted to assert more regulatory control over Internet providers by reclassifying them as common carriers, similar to telephone services.
Pai unveiled a proposal last month to repeal that reclassification, called Title II, potentially gutting the net neutrality protections.
Pai and his supporters in the telecommunications industry have framed the move as eliminating burdensome regulation on broadband providers while simultaneously paying lip service to the idea of maintaining an open Internet.
Net neutrality advocates argue the move could lead to a power grab by a handful of Internet service providers at the expense of consumers and upstart online companies.
“If you unequivocally trust that your broadband provider will always put the public interest over their self-interest or the interest of their stockholders, then [this proposal] is for you,” Mignon Clyburn, the FCC’s lone Democrat commissioner, said in prepared remarks Thursday.
More than 1,000 startups and investors have now signed an open letter to Pai opposing the proposal. The Internet Association, a trade group representing bigger companies like Facebook (FB, Tech30), Google (GOOGL, Tech30) and Amazon (AMZN, Tech30), has also condemned the plan.
“The current FCC rules are working for consumers and the protections need to be kept in tact,” Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, said at a press conference Wednesday.
The FCC has already received a torrent of comments online in the days leading up to the vote thanks in large part to a rallying cry from “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver. In fact, the FCC’s comment system crashed after an Oliver segment. The FCC later claimed it was a DDoS attack.
An offline rally to save net neutrality took place place outside the FCC headquarters on Thursday.
While outrage may be growing over Pai’s plan, there are doubts among advocates about how effective these demonstrations will be.
Pai, appointed to the chairman role by President Trump, is a longtime critic of the previous FCC administration’s approach to net neutrality. There is also clear opposition from the Republican-led Congress.
The initial vote comes before the FCC is fully staffed with five commissioners. It currently has two Republican commissioners, including Pai, and one Democrat.
“We think it’s worth fighting for,” Beckerman said. “We are not just going to give up because there happens to be votes at the FCC.”
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Gigi Sohn, a counselor to former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, says the public comments could also factor into any court battle that may come later over the rule change.
“If you have an overwhelming record in favor of retaining these rules, it’s something the FCC has to consider and something a court is going to look at, if you believe it will ultimately go to court,” Sohn tells CNNTech.
The public outrage could also put pressure on Republicans, who have already come under fire for a vote to repeal Internet privacy protections.
“If this starts to become a political liability for Republicans,” Sohn says, “they might just whisper to [Pai]: ‘It’s not worth it.’ “