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Net Neutrality

D.C. Circuit Court Upholds FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Repeal of Net Neutrality, But Allows States to Fill the Void

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Photo of Ajit Pai in February 2018 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

WASHINGTON, October 1, 2019 — The Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of Obama-era network neutrality rules will remain, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on Tuesday.

However, in a bit of a split decision, the court said that the agency did not have authority to preemptively ban states from passing their own versions of net neutrality legislation.

The panel largely rejected a challenge to new rules which reclassify broadband internet as an information service, rather than a common carrier akin to telephone service.

The ruling appeared to put an end to efforts by public interest advocacy groups and some internet companies to overturn the reclassification of broadband internet service.

In December 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai led the Republican commissioners to overturn the agency’s February 2015 decision to prohibit broadband providers from blocking or throttling particularl types of internet traffic.

“We hold that classifying broadband Internet access as an “information service” based on the functionalities of DNS and caching is “‘a reasonable policy choice for the [FCC] to make,’” the court wrote in a unanimous opinion. The decision relied heavily on case law – so-called Chevron deference after a Supreme Court case by that name from the 1980s — requiring courts to defer to agencies’ interpretations of ambiguous statutes.

The plaintiffs’ objections to the reclassification, the court wrote, were “unconvincing for the most part.”

In leaving room for states to enact their own net neutrality laws — by finding that the agency lacked the authority to bar states from enacting rules more stringent than the FCC’s requirements — some aspects of the decision cheered advocates of net neutrality. The court also required the FCC to more fully consider the needs of public safety users.

In a statement, TechFreedom President Berin Szoka applauded the court’s decision, but noted that it leaves room for a future Democratic-majority FCC to reinstate the Obama-era rules and shift the long-running battle over network neutrality to state legislatures and case-by-case court battles.

“Today’s decision vindicates the RIFO, but Chevron deference to the Republican FCC’s interpretation will likely be tomorrow’s Chevron deference to the next Democratic FCC’s interpretation,” Szoka said. “So this issue will remain a political football for the foreseeable future, unless and until Congress finally writes into statute the open Internet principles that virtually all parties have agreed on since 2004.”

Internet Innovation Alliance Co-Chairs Rick Boucher, Bruce Mehlman, and Kim Keenan also lauded the ruling, which they said “deserves applause from everyone who wants to see an expansion of innovation, competition and investment in the internet ecosystem.”

“But ruling that the FCC can’t block state laws and thus allowing rules that differ among all 50 states could spell disaster for advancement of the internet, as web services are offered on a national basis, and many would be disrupted by a multiplicity of diverse and contradictory state net neutrality requirements,” they added.

“Unless Congress codifies nationwide open internet rules, including the designation of broadband as an information service, we will very likely see continuation of the ping-pong at the FCC between classifications of broadband as an information service and as a telecommunications service.”

Also speaking out in favor of the decision was US Telecom CEO Jonathan Spalter, who said in a statement that the court “got it right and affirmed what anyone who has been paying attention to Washington’s net neutrality saga knows to be true: the internet is open, ISPs are investing to bring internet users the content they want, and we remain absolutely opposed to anti-consumer practices like blocking, throttling and anti-competitive paid-prioritization.”

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a longtime network neutrality proponent, said in a statement that the court’s decision “leaves the future of the free and open internet in question.”

“When I attended the net neutrality court hearing earlier this year, I heard the FCC and broadband industry use tortured logic to defend the repeal of net neutrality and undermine strong rules for an open internet,” Markey said. “Sadly, today’s court opinion doesn’t reflect the clear reality that Americans rely on the internet the way they rely on electricity or telephone service.

But at the FCC, the court’s decision providing something for everyone.

In dueling press statements, both Republicans and Democrats at the FCC claimed victory.

Said the Republican Pai, ignoring the criticisms of the ruling made by the three judge panel:

“Today’s decision is a victory for consumers, broadband deployment, and the free and open Internet.  The court affirmed the FCC’s decision to repeal 1930s utility-style regulation of the Internet imposed by the prior Administration.  The court also upheld our robust transparency rule so that consumers can be fully informed about their online options.  Since we adopted the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, consumers have seen 40 percent faster speeds and millions more Americans have gained access to the Internet.  A free and open Internet is what we have today and what we’ll continue to have moving forward.  We look forward to addressing on remand the narrow issues that the court identified.”

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat highlighted the fact that states remain free to pass net neutrality legislation:

“Above all else, today’s decision breathes new life into the fight for an open internet.  It confirms that states can continue to step into the void left by this FCC.  To that end, it is a validation of those states that have already sought to protect consumers, and a challenge to those that haven’t yet acted to think hard about how to protect their citizens.  More pointedly, the decision affirms that the FCC ignored key aspects of its mission with regard to public safety and broadband deployment.  And the decision admonishes this Commission for its failure to consider the impact of its action in this context on Lifeline, a critical program that makes broadband more affordable for low-income consumers.”

Andrew Feinberg is the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

Net Neutrality

Biden Signs Executive Order on Net Neutrality, Broadband Pricing Policy and Big Tech Merger Scrutiny

Executive order would kickoff new antitrust and net neutrality regulations.

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Photo of Joe Biden in July 2021 from the South China Morning Press

July 9, 2021—President Joe Biden on Friday announced his intent to sign an executive order addressing an array of 72 initiatives, including net neutrality, and generally taking aim at big telecom and tech companies to address competition in the economy.

The White House released a fact sheet on the goals and the actions to be taken to achieve them.

The order would, among other things, task the Federal Communications Commission with reinstituting pre-Trump administration net neutrality rules.

Net neutrality refers to the concept that broadband providers must not block or throttle the content that consumers seek to access on the internet, or provide preferential access to content by business partners.

Under former President Barack Obama, the FCC in February 2015 enacted net neutrality rules promoting what his administration called “the open, fair, and free internet as we know it today.”

Broadband pricing policy

Biden’s order also tackled broadband policy and the digital divide more broadly.

It pointed to the 200 million Americans that live in regions with only one or two internet service providers and stated that this contributes to inflated internet service prices up to five times higher than in areas with more than two ISPs.

The order also condemned relationships between landlords and broadband providers that block new providers from expanding or improving broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas, and it urged the FCC to enact rules to ban such deals and relationships.

To improve price transparency, Biden also urged the FCC to implement a “Broadband Nutrition Label” and require that all broadband providers report their service plans and rates to the FCC for evaluation.

Additionally, the plan directed the FCC to address unreasonably high, early termination fees enacted by broadband providers. The Biden administration argues that these fees are often in place only to discourage consumers from switching to what may be a superior internet service.

Big tech a target, too

In addition to broadband policy, the order would also take aim at data collection and mergers by big tech companies. The factsheet specifically mentioned that the order would tackle “kill acquisitions” designed to stifle perceived competitive threats to tech companies and pointed out that federal regulatory bodies have not done enough to prevent these mergers.

The administration would adopt a policy to greater scrutinize potential mergers, according to the White House fact sheet.

Additionally, the administration also condemned data collection policies by big tech companies, pointing to business models completely dependent on harvesting of sensitive consumer data. To address this, he tasked the Federal Trade Commission to draft new rules on consumer surveillance and data collection.

Net neutrality advocate at the FCC

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has been a longtime advocate for strong net neutrality laws. Though her critics have argued that there have been precious few examples of companies throttling their consumers internet speed, Rosenworcel has supported initiatives that would classify internet service providers as “common carriers,” and would forbid them from interfering in a user’s internet speed or the content they view.

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Explainers

Explainer: On the Cusp of Sea Change, Broadband Breakfast Examines the Net Neutrality Debate

In the first in a series of explainers, Broadband Breakfast has hand-picked the debate on net neutrality to bring readers up-to-speed on its history and future.

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Tim Wu, who coined "net neutrality," was appointed by the Biden White House to the National Economic Council

With a change in the guard at the Federal Communications Commission and the White House, the United States is on the cusp of a possible change in direction with respect to its network neutrality rules.

By the summer of 2018, the country had changed its position on the issue when the Trump-era FCC voted to roll back Obama-era rules that, in 2015, cemented rules bolstering net neutrality. The roll-back essentially allowed the telecoms to manage and give preferential treatment to certain traffic that run on their networks.

But something changed. It started when the Department of Justice — the new one under the administration of President Joe Bidenwithdrew a lawsuit started under Trump’s presidency against California for its proposed net neutrality rules. After the internet service providers lost a legal challenge to the proposed rules, California became the first state to implement the new legislation.

Join the Broadband Breakfast Live Online “Ask Us About Net Neutrality” on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

Then the Biden White House appointed Tim Wu, a fierce advocate for and who coined the term “net neutrality,” to the National Economic Council this year.

There’s an emerging debate across the country about whether more states will follow suit or if a federal-level plan will emerge first.

Before that’s answered, Broadband Breakfast is taking a step-back and has put together an explainer on the issue to get you up-to-speed on its history and what’s at stake.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the concept that traffic on networks cannot be blocked, slowed, accelerated or otherwise altered by internet service providers. In essence, it is the concept that legal internet activity must be treated equally.

The term was coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003, in a paper about online discrimination. It was an extension of the longstanding concept of a common carrier, used to describe the role of telephone systems as infrastructure that simply transports traffic from one destination to the next with no influence.

The common carrier concept in common law countries says that, regardless of who is using the internet, what content is on it, the website being accessed, or the platform and application it is operating on, nothing will be discriminated against or favored more than another.

What happens when net neutrality is abandoned?

When net neutrality rules were rolled-back in 2018, the ISPs struck. According to Bloomberg, citing research out of Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wireless carriers have since slowed internet traffic to and from applications like YouTube, Netflix, and Microsoft’s Skype video chat service.

Proponents of zero-rating, the concept that includes apps not counting against users’ monthly data allowance, said it would provide for opportunities for those to experience these services without incurring cost – perhaps in overage charges. Opponents, however, argued it could possibly create an information divide, whereby the less advantaged would be forced to consume certain services and not others.

The rocky history of net neutrality

In the early 2000s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a U.S. regulatory agency, required broadband providers to share their infrastructure with competing firms. In 2005, those requirements were struck down by the Supreme Court. The debate at the time was trying to determine if broadband service providers should also be considered as information services, which allows users to publish and store information online or on telecommunication services.

Watch our 2:57 minute preview video on Net Neutrality

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The Obama administration approved net neutrality rules in 2015. This partially barred ISPs like AT&T and Comcast from purposefully increasing, sometimes called throttling, or decreasing speed access to websites based on demand or business preferences.

On the Obama White House Archives site, it says that most internet providers have treated internet traffic equally, “that an entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money.”

On February 26, 2015, the FCC voted in favor of strong net neutrality rules and on June 14, the same year, the U.S. for the District of Columbia fully upheld the FCC’s net neutrality rules. The Obama administration called it a victory for “the open, fair, and free Internet as we know it today.”

On November 21, 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by former President Trump, unveiled a plan to roll back the Obama administration rules. The plan went into effect on June 11, 2018, and on October 1, 2019, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the FCC’s plan to repeal most of the provisions of net neutrality but struck down a provision that would block states from implementing their own open internet rules. Chairman Pai said in a statement that the appeals’ decision was a “victory for consumers, broadband deployment, and the free and open Internet.” “The court affirmed the FCC’s decision to repeal 1930s utility-style regulation of the Internet imposed by the prior [Obama] Administration,” the statement said.

In 2018, the Senate voted to overturn the repeal of net neutrality but the resolution stalled in the House. The House then put it to a vote again in 2019 under the “Save the Internet Act,” but it was effectively dead in the water, at least until 2021.

In favor of net neutrality

Advocates in favor of net neutrality focus on providing smaller companies equal opportunity to thrive. By not allowing ISPs to determine the speed at which consumers can access certain websites or online services, smaller companies will be more likely to enter the market and create new services. Smaller companies are protected in the sense that they may not be able to afford “fast lane” access, while larger, more established companies can.

These advocates for net neutrality point out that several well-established social network websites were created without much seed capital. Had these small businesses been forced to pay extra in order to be as accessible online as their competitors, success may never have come.

Proponents of net neutrality include:

  • Human rights organizations
  • Consumer rights advocates
  • Some software companies

These groups argue that cable companies should be deemed “common carriers,” similar to public utility companies or public transportation providers, who are by law, forbidden from discriminating among their users.

Public Knowledge, a non-profit Washington, D.C.-based public interest group focused on competition, digital choice in the marketplace, and an open standards and end-to-end internet, is in favor of net neutrality.

It says that without net neutrality rules, “ISPs like Verizon and Comcast can prevent users from visiting some websites, provide slower speeds for services like Netflix and Hulu, or even redirect users from one website to a competing website.” Public Knowledge claims that consumers would ultimately be hurt by anti-net neutrality policies, bearing the additional costs on things like their monthly Netflix bill or in the cost of goods from a local online store.

Against net neutrality

Advocates against net neutrality focus on investment incentives and cost concerns for broadband infrastructure. If ISPs are forced to treat all internet traffic equally, the government will ultimately discourage the investment in new infrastructure, and will also see ISPs be slow to innovate. Upfront costs with laying down fiber optic cable can also be very expensive. They say that not being able to charge more for more challenging areas of access will make the investment harder to pay off.

Opponents of net neutrality include:

  • Conservative think tanks
  • Major telecommunications providers
  • Some hardware manufacturers

Telecommunication providers argue that “they must be allowed to charge tiered prices for access in order to remain competitive and generate funds needed for further innovation and expansion of broadband networks, as well as to recoup the costs already invested in broadband.”

Having less oversight on internet service by allowing some ISPs to charge for access to some content would lead to free access to certain sites, reports IT Pro. For example, if ISPs charged more money to bandwidth-hungry companies like Netflix for using their infrastructure, they could offer access to sites like Wikipedia or Facebook for free—even if a consumer had no internet contract.

Net neutrality controversies

The repeal of net neutrality rules has exposed some of the complexities of allowing ISPs to do what they wish with internet traffic. That isn’t more true than for the vertically-integrated providers, who both own the networks and content services that run on them. This has created a debate about possible anti-competitive behavior: what would stop a provider to block or slow traffic on a competing service and speed-up or eliminate data usage on their own services?

That’s exactly what happened with AT&T’s WatchTV streaming service, which was a new product in 2018, following its acquisition of Time Warner (now WarnerMedia). That year — after California backed down from cracking down on zero-rating —  the service gave subscribers the option of a subscribing to a bundle of channels with no charge against their data allotment. (After California made its net neutrality legislation law this year, AT&T axed its zero-rating practice in the state and said it would likely have to do the same with the rest of the country.)

And then there were the 2018 California wildfires, some of the worst in the state’s history.

The bombshell from that was the Santa Clara fire department alleging Verizon had throttled its services, which “had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services,” the department said, according to Ars Technica.

The evidence was submitted as part of a lawsuit to reinstate federal net neutrality rules.

The telehealth question

The wildfires incident may take some bite out of the argument that net neutrality rules should be loosened to allow special exemptions to emergency services, but it’s quickly becoming a hot topic for another emerging segment: telehealth.

The Covid-19 pandemic has effectively upended the traditional in-person setting for nearly everything. But it’s especially problematic for medical services.

Critics of the net neutrality law in California are reportedly concerned that a telehealth app, VA Video Connect, whose use doesn’t count against users’ data caps, may be blocked under the legislation.

Boost Mobile, seeing the emerging opportunity, recently announced that it is bundling telehealth services with its packages.

There are exemptions that can be made in state and federal laws for emergency and health services, so time will tell what those could look like.

The future of net neutrality

As the federal government still has net neutrality on the ropes, states have stepped in to guard the internet’s traffic neutrality. Both proponents and opponents of net neutrality have argued that internet freedom will prevail if their side wins.

As of January 2021, 19 states, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, introduced legislation in the 2020 legislative session that supports net neutrality.

Though some have taken net neutrality into their own hands, such legislation, even on a state level, can be challenging to implement. The FCC has claimed only itself has the authority to make these kinds of regulations, and that local and state governments cannot pass laws inconsistent with federal net neutrality rules.

In October 2019, a federal appeals court ruling in October 2019 largely upheld the decision to abolish net neutrality, “but ordered the FCC to examine its effect on public safety, federally subsidized broadband services, and utility pole regulations.”

Join the Broadband Breakfast Live Online “Ask Us About Net Neutrality” on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

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Net Neutrality

For or Against, It’s Time To Consider Codifying Net Neutrality In Law, Panelists Say

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Photo of Morgan Reed from C-SPAN

March 18, 2021 – The issue of net neutrality has captured more bandwidth than needed and the concept – either for or against – must be codified in the law so the issue doesn’t surface every election cycle, the president of the App Association said during a Federal Communications Bar Association event Thursday.

“Absent congressional action, this yo-yo will continue,” said Morgan Reed, whose organization represents app makers and connected device companies. Reed proposed Congress deal with the matter by, once and for all, putting it in the Telecommunications Act.

The debate about net neutrality, which stipulates that all internet traffic should be treated equally and that no telecom should be able to accept payment to speed up applications, has picked up since the Federal Communications Commission changed leadership and President Joe Biden took office.

The acting chairwoman has been a supporter of net neutrality. Biden’s justice department dropped a lawsuit recently challenging a proposed net neutrality law in California, which AT&T said forced it to stop offering free services because it would not be able to give it preferential treatment under the proposed law.

All roads seem to point to the reinstatement of net neutrality rules once instated by the Obama-era FCC but was reversed by the Trump-era regulator.

Currently, telecommunications is categorized as a Title I service, meaning it is spared from additional FCC regulatory burdens like managing content over its networks. That can be reversed if it is reclassified as a Title II, which effectively bring it under the ambit of the net neutrality rules.

Kristine Hackman, vice president of policy and advocacy at US Telecom, said operating under Title I regulations is not appropriate and outdated.

“We can’t regulate internet well with a statute that was written before World War II!” She defended ISPs and said they are not engaging in throttling, despite what she called false accusations suggesting otherwise, and said it is not in their natural conscience to even try to throttle since the consumer is in their minds.

Part of the issue with the approach to net neutrality is the confusion surrounding who governs the issues. Jon Peha, professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said that the newspapers these days confuse legal authority with the rules, saying the FCC’s authority to regulate is muddied with what authority the Federal Trade Commission has. He said the current position of the FCC is that it has no authority to deal with net neutrality, privacy, and even pole attachments, explaining that its authority over communications infrastructure is unclear.

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