Silicon Valley is pushing back against Republicans' plans to rewrite net neutrality rules.
The Internet Association, a lobbying group that represents companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Netflix and Microsoft, met with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday. Its message was clear: Don't tear down our existing online protections.
The meeting was a response to indications that Pai, a Republican appointed by President Donald Trump, is considering a proposal to dismantle current rules, which ensure all online traffic is treated equally and prohibits providers from selling "fast lanes," which would give deep-pocketed players priority access to their customers. Any change could have a significant impact on the control that internet service providers will be able to exert.
Under his proposal, which has not been publicly released, companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon would voluntarily agree to not slow down or block access to the internet. It would also strip the FCC of the ability to enforce these principles, giving the Federal Trade Commission the authority to police wrongdoing.
The proposal is a stark departure from the strict set of rules established by the FCC in 2015 during President Barack Obama's administration. Democrats and consumer groups have already opposed Pai's idea. Now the internet giants are weighing in.
"The internet industry is uniform in its belief that net neutrality preserves the consumer experience, competition and innovation online," the group said. "Existing net neutrality rules should be enforced and kept intact."
As for stripping the FCC of its authority, the group also made its position clear in its meeting with Pai that rules should be "enforced by the expert agency, namely the FCC."
The FCC did not return requests for comment. US Telecom, an industry group Pai met with last week, and the cable industry's group NCTA - The Internet and Television Association, declined to comment.
Chairman Pai has made no secret that he is not a fan of the existing net neutrality rules -- specifically the part that reclassifies broadband as a utility like phone service. He voted against the rules when he was a commissioner in 2015. And even before he took over as chairman of the agency in January, he said he planned to take a "weed-wacker" to the regulation.
But until last week, Pai had been relatively quiet about how he'd change the rules. Instead, he quietly went about not enforcing the rules. First, 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, the FCC had said the companies' plans violated the net neutrality rules because they prioritized some services over others.
Last month, Pai also delayed the implementation of FCC privacy rules, which had been adopted in October as a result of broadband's new status as a utility. The rules were killed last week after Trump signed a law repealing all aspects of the rules.
Then came news of Pai's proposal. Pai met last week with some industry groups to discuss the plan, which many expect will be revealed later this month.
Backlash and the fight ahead
Net neutrality supporters, including consumer advocacy groups and Democrats in Congress, had sharp words for Pai's plan, accusing the chairman of handing control of the internet over to big broadband companies.
"Chairman Pai is preparing to give dominant cable and telecommunications companies what their DC lobbyists have dreamed of for years: voluntary net neutrality 'rules,' where consumer protection is no more than 'trust your cable or internet provider,'" Chris Lewis, vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said Friday.
Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, called big cable and internet companies the "real muscle behind this attack," and he vowed to fight back.
Mignon Clyburn, the lone Democrat on the FCC said: "Given the incentives and abilities of broadband providers to harm internet openness, all Americans should be extremely concerned."
"We are prepared to push back at every level," said Gigi Sohn, an advisor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
Sohn said she expects the public to re-engage on this issue, as it did in 2015 when the FCC received more than 4 million comments on net neutrality after comedian John Oliver implored people to write to the FCC.
But it's hard to say what effect net neutrality supporters will have in fighting the new policy. Republicans control the FCC 2-1, and they also control both houses of Congress and the White House.
"Net neutrality has been a 15-year soap opera in Washington, so we certainly don't rule out unforeseen twists," Paul Gallant, an analyst with Cowen and Company said. "But in the end, we anticipate the Republican FCC -- publicly backed by a deregulatory White House -- will follow through and significantly reduce regulation of broadband."
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