The Republican-led Federal Communications Commission still hasn't said if it will dismantle the controversial net neutrality regulations, but it's already picking apart the rules to make them less potent.
On Thursday, the agency voted 2-1 along party lines to suspend the net neutrality transparency requirement for broadband providers with fewer than 250,000 customers. Under the previous administration's policy such exemptions were only allowed for providers with fewer than 100,000 subscribers.
Net neutrality is the idea that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. The transparency rule, which was the only part of the original 2010 FCC rules that survived a court challenge in 2014, requires broadband providers to inform customers when their internet traffic is being slowed.
Expanding the number of broadband providers that won't have to comply with the transparency rule comes as Ajit Pai, who took over as FCC chairman a month ago, and Republicans in Congress discuss plans to dismantle the regulation. Pai hasn't said whether the FCC will repeal the regulation or if it will wait for Republicans in Congress to write a new law that replaces the regulation. A repeal of the rules by the FCC could face legal challenges, since a federal appeals court last year upheld the rules and the FCC's authority.
Pai has signaled he has no intention of enforcing the rules. Earlier this month, he closed an investigation into AT&T's and Verizon's zero-rating practices, which allow customers to watch video from certain applications from their mobile devices without it counting against their monthly data caps. In December, under Democrat chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC said the companies' plans violated the net neutrality rules because they prioritized some services over others.
Small ISPs have argued the transparency rules are too costly. Pai agrees.
"I firmly believe that these ISPs should spend their limited capital building out better broadband to rural America, not hiring lawyers and accountants to fill out unnecessary paperwork demanded by Washington, DC," he said.
Consumer advocates say the exemption will hurt consumers, who should have the right to know when a provider is throttling their internet traffic. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the Democrat on the three-member commission, also argued that large internet service providers with subsidiaries that serve fewer than 250,000 customers will also be exempt from the regulations.
"In an ongoing quest to dismantle basic consumer protections for broadband services, the majority has decided to exempt billion-dollar public companies from being transparent with consumers," Clyburn said. "This represents yet another in a series of steps being taken to jettison pro-consumer initiatives."
Republican Michael O'Rielly defended the measure and pointed out that the House of Representatives had passed a bill in January with a similar exemption with no one dissenting in a voice vote. O'Rielly called the exemption "sensible" and "justifiable" to ensure small internet service providers don't have to comply with "unnecessary and expensive" regulations.
Democrats in the Senate disagree. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts said consumers should have the right to access "the most basic and fundamental information about the broadband service for which they pay."
"Consumers deserve truth in pricing information," Markey added. "Instead of allowing ISPs to hide pricing information, the FCC should promote transparency so subscribers have all the background they need to make educated decisions about their broadband service."
Digital rights groups are already gearing up for a fight to protect network neutrality. On Thursday several groups, including Free Press, Daily Kos, Fight for the Future, and the Center for Media Justice among others, assembled outside the FCC headquarters in Washington to speak out in support of the open internet. The groups delivered the first batch of net neutrality petitions along with a number of "internet love letters," written since Valentine's Day by net neutrality supporters across the country.
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