The repeal of network neutrality rules inched closer to reality on Thursday when the Federal Communications Commission submitted into the Federal Registry its controversial replacement called the Restoring Internet Freedom order.
Opponents say the new order will create powerful internet gatekeepers with the authority to block websites, throttle services and censor online content. They also promise to fight the rollback and hold onto the central tenant of network neutrality, such as an open internet.
Thursday’s actions by the FCC were set into motion in December when the Trump administration signed an order to repeal net neutrality rules. The final draft of the Restoring Internet Freedom rules is slated for April 23, when it will become official.
The change has motivated a united coalition of net neutrality supporters that include 20 state attorneys general, consumer groups and companies such as Vimeo, Netflix and Sonos to action.
On Thursday, Mozilla and Vimeo pushed back, each filing legal challenges to the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules.
“The decision does not simply ‘roll back’ to an unregulated internet, instead, it removes affirmative protections for the public despite the fact that many people in the U.S. suffer from a lack of choice in broadband high speed internet access,” Mozilla said in a statement. “To make matters worse, the FCC didn’t adequately consider the impact such a removal would have on small businesses that rely on the open internet to sell their products and services and the free expression rights of internet users.”
Separately, Vimeo refiled a lawsuit against the FCC on Thursday in U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. It argues net neutrality is an important safeguard that prevents companies such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from slowing down and blocking websites, or charging web services fees to reach their audience.
That legal action was also followed Thursday by lawsuits filed by consumer groups Public Knowledge and Open Technology Institute. Attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman of New York also filed a suit against the FCC to stop the change.
FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, has vigorously defended the repeal net neutrality rules established in 2015 by the Obama administration. Pai and supporters of the Restoring Internet Freedom order argue the rules “restore the longstanding, bipartisan light-touch regulatory framework,” which reverses “the FCC’s 2015 heavy-handed utility-style regulation of broadband Internet access service.” They believe the new rules will spur innovation and business among internet companies and help the economy.
The rollback of net neutrality regulations has been one of Pia’s most controversial actions as FCC chairman. The rule change has sparked discord even within the FCC. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel issued a statement on Thursday (PDF) against the action:
The FCC’s net neutrality decision is a study in just what’s wrong with Washington. This agency failed the American public. It failed to listen to their concerns and gave short shrift to their deeply held belief that internet openness should remain the law of the land. It turned a blind eye to all kinds of corruption in our public record—from Russian intervention to fake comments to stolen identities in our files. As a result of the mess the agency created, broadband providers will now have the power to block websites, throttle services, and censor online content. This is not right. The FCC is on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the law and it deserves to have its handiwork revisited, reexamined, and ultimately reversed.
Meanwhile lawmakers in Massachusetts, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Washington and several other states have introduced bills recently that attempt to hold onto net neutrality regulation at the state level. Those bills would forbid internet providers from blocking or slowing down sites or online services.
“This is not a partisan issue. The repeal of existing net neutrality rules would threaten fairness and freedom on the internet, and would make it harder for entrepreneurs and small business owners to compete in the global marketplace,” said Norma Smith, a republican state representative from Washington in December when introducing her bill.
State governors have also entered the fray, with Vermont, Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, and New York each using executive orders to enforce net neutrality rules in government contracts.
“This is a simple step states can take to preserve and protect net neutrality. We can’t wait for folks in Washington DC to come to their senses and reinstate these rules,” wrote Montana Governor Steve Bullock last month when introducing the executive order.
The FCC hasn’t taken kindly to those state-level actions and has promised to preempt state net neutrality laws. The basis for doing so is that broadband services are interstate services that transcend state lines and that state-level attempts to regulate broadband services would subvert federal policy.