The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to reinstate net neutrality rules that were repealed by the Trump administration in 2017, according to sources familiar with the matter. The move comes as Democrats have gained a majority on the five-member panel, which regulates the nation’s communications industry.
Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all online traffic equally, without blocking, throttling, or favoring certain websites, applications, or services. Supporters of net neutrality argue that it preserves the open and competitive nature of the internet, while opponents claim that it stifles innovation and investment by imposing unnecessary regulations on ISPs.
The history of net neutrality in the US dates back to the early 2000s, when broadband internet connections became widely available and ISPs started to experiment with different ways of managing their networks. Some ISPs began to block or slow down access to certain online services, such as peer-to-peer file sharing or video streaming, that competed with their own offerings or consumed a lot of bandwidth. This sparked a public outcry and a legal battle between ISPs and the FCC, which sought to enforce net neutrality principles under its existing authority.
In 2010, the FCC issued its first set of net neutrality rules, known as the Open Internet Order, which prohibited ISPs from blocking or discriminating against lawful online content, while allowing them to engage in “reasonable network management”. However, the rules were challenged in court by Verizon, a major ISP, and were struck down by a federal appeals court in 2014. The court ruled that the FCC had exceeded its statutory power by regulating ISPs as “information services”, which are subject to a lighter regulatory regime than “telecommunications services”, which are treated as “common carriers” and must provide nondiscriminatory access to their networks.
In response to the court’s decision, the FCC under the Obama administration decided to reclassify broadband internet as a telecommunications service, and adopted a new set of net neutrality rules in 2015, known as the Title II Order. The rules banned ISPs from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing online traffic, and also imposed other obligations on ISPs, such as protecting consumer privacy and ensuring universal service. The rules were upheld by the same federal appeals court in 2016, and were widely supported by internet companies, consumer groups, and civil rights organizations.
However, the net neutrality rules faced strong opposition from ISPs, Republican lawmakers, and the Trump administration, which argued that they were unnecessary, burdensome, and harmful to the economy. In 2017, the FCC under the Trump administration voted to repeal the Title II Order and restore the previous classification of broadband internet as an information service, effectively ending federal net neutrality protections. The repeal, known as the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, was challenged in court by several states, internet companies, and consumer groups, but was largely upheld by the federal appeals court in 2019. The court, however, allowed states to enact their own net neutrality laws, creating a patchwork of regulations across the country.
Now, the FCC under the Biden administration is poised to reverse the repeal and restore the net neutrality rules, as Democrats have gained a 3-2 majority on the commission. The FCC is expected to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking in the coming months, which will solicit public comments on the proposed regulations. The FCC will then review the comments and issue a final order, which will likely face legal challenges from ISPs and Republican lawmakers.
The FCC’s plan to reinstate net neutrality rules is part of a broader agenda to promote broadband access and affordability, especially in rural and low-income areas, where millions of Americans lack reliable and high-speed internet service. The FCC is also working to implement a $3.2 billion program to provide subsidies for low-income households to pay for broadband service and devices, and to distribute $7.2 billion to schools and libraries to support remote learning and telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic. The FCC is also expected to review the mergers and acquisitions of telecom companies, and to address other issues such as spectrum allocation, media ownership, and public safety communications.
The FCC’s net neutrality rules are likely to have significant implications for the internet ecosystem, as they will affect how ISPs manage their networks, how internet companies deliver their services, and how consumers access online content. The rules will also have political and legal ramifications, as they will reflect the FCC’s interpretation of its authority and role in regulating the communications industry, and will likely face opposition and litigation from various stakeholders. The net neutrality debate is far from over, and will continue to shape the future of the internet in the US and beyond.