The battle for the future of a free and equal internet is flaring up again, and looks set to take a dramatic turn.
The momentous win that net neutrality advocates celebrated in 2015 is on track to be reversed during Donald Trump’s presidency.
On Monday, the president-elect named two high-profile opponents of net neutrality to oversee the transition of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which handles federal regulations of companies providing internet access to consumers.
Quick refresher: “Net neutrality” is the principal that all internet traffic should be equal—that we should all have the same internet. That means: No blocking sites or throttling traffic by providers, or letting those same providers get away with selling faster, more open internet access to individuals or companies with the money to pay for it. The internet’s always worked this way, but in the past decade, the issue’s become a major concern for internet advocates worried about powerful business interests turning the web into a glorified version of cable television. Given Trump’s appointments, concern for the future of the issue is flaring up again.
“People generally are very pessimistic about the future of the net neutrality rules,” said Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, a trade group that represents a variety of internet-based companies.
Beckerman added that there are other ways that some or all of the goals of net neutrality could be accomplished, namely congressional action.
“There is nothing to indicate that the new administration / congress / FCC won’t do precisely as the lobbyists have been asking…”
“If congress writes a law that bans paid prioritization and blocking and throttling… and is part of a broader legislative piece that updates the [Telecommunications Act of 1996], then fine… as long as it gets the same end result,” Beckerman said.
Others, like noted net neutrality advocate and Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, aren’t as optimistic.
“Totally dead. There is nothing to indicate that the new administration/congress/FCC won’t do precisely as the lobbyists have been asking, and gut everything [FCC] Chairman [Tom] Wheeler accomplished,” Lessig wrote in an email to Mashable.
Net neutrality caught fire in 2014 when the FCC was working on new rules, and John Oliver touched on the subject on Last Week Tonight.
President Barack Obama weighed in and advocated for the strongest option—having the FCC reclassify broadband internet as a utility, like water or electricity, which allows for more stringent regulation of the companies that provide internet access. That ended up being the rule the FCC passed.
When Obama came out for the rules, Trump came out against.
Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2014
As president, Trump will chose the next chair of the FCC, as well as the four other commissioners (who then have to be approved by the Senate).
The expectation is that this new FCC chair will be able to lead the charge on repealing Obama-era net neutrality rules—and maybe, then some. Republicans have spent years decrying how much power the FCC wields.
“This fight is ultimately going to morph into a fight about the FCC,” said Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a libertarian think tank.
Szoka said net neutrality could be only the first piece in a broader effort to roll back the FCC’s reach. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which typically goes after companies with antitrust lawsuits, would have to pick up the slack.
The general effect would be less regulation over internet providers, though Szoka said giving the FTC broader powers would create a better system.
“We’re much better off with a regulator that has absolutely comprehensive jurisdiction,” Szoka said. “It’s stupid that Facebook is regulated by a different agency than is Verizon.”
Democratic politicians, meanwhile, are preparing for the worst.
“I am deeply skeptical of any proposal that would seek to roll back the Open Internet Order under the guise of promoting net neutrality protections,” wrote Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts in a statement to Mashable. “Such proposals are a wolf in sheep’s clothing and would end up harming low-income, disabled, senior and rural consumers, as well as competition in the telecommunications marketplace.”
In a separate statement to Mashable, Rep. Anna Eshoo of California agreed: “If President-elect Trump wants to make good on the populist promises of his campaign, he should support the FCC’s Open Internet Order and oppose any attempts to turn the future of the internet over to a handful of powerful gatekeepers.”
If that’s the stand they’re taking, they may end up having their work cut out for them. Legislation focused on ensuring some net neutrality principles—and reeling in the FCC—had been proposed by Republicans, but didn’t go far.
Now, with Republicans set to control both houses of Congress as well as the Oval Office, there’s a chance that net neutrality advocates could not only see their greatest victory rescinded, but also, the implementation of new laws, ones which would be far harder to repeal in the future than the current FCC rules.
“Over the last two years, I looked for, but didn’t find, a path toward a bipartisan agreement,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the head of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, in a statement. “If the election result creates a change of heart, I’d be open to another conversation about legislation to protect the open internet, update the authorities of the FCC, and take Title II regulation of broadband off the table.”