In 2015, the Obama administration categorized internet service providers as Title II entities under FCC regulations – a radical move that prevented ISPs (like Verizon) from controlling the speed of data delivery. As a Title II entity, ISPs were treated as utility providers, like any phone company. As such, these companies were prohibited from selling faster internet speeds to higher-paying clients. Thus, Verizon couldn’t offer faster services to Netflix and slower services to a small business simply because one could pay more than the other. Recently, under the leadership of Republican Ajit Pai, the FCC decided to overturn the Obama-era decree, essentially destroying the bastion of net neutrality.
Without net neutrality many worry that the freedom currently enjoyed by web-surfers will dissipate, as the virtual territory will become monopolized by major ISPs, who in essence will become gatekeepers of the world wide web. That’s precisely what New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman fears, and that’s why, in mid-January, he led a group of 21 states and the District of Columbia in filing a petition against the administration, seeking the reversal of the FCC’s net neutrality repeal.
In a statement, Schneiderman expressed his vehement opposition to the FCC’s decision: “An open internet – and the free exchange of ideas it allows – is critical to our democratic process.” He continued, “The repeal of net neutrality would turn internet service providers into gatekeepers – allowing them to put profits over consumers while controlling what we see, what we do, and what we say online. This would be a disaster for New York consumers and businesses, and for everyone who cares about a free and open internet.”
According to the petition, filed in the DC Circuit US Court of Appeals, the FCC’s repeal should be overturned for several reasons. To begin with, the Attorneys General argue, the agency made “arbitrary and capricious” changes when it rolled back net neutrality, which is a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The FCC should also not have ignored the large quantities of data pertaining to the treatment of consumers by internet service providers. And according to AG Schneiderman’s press release, the agency ignored preceding FCC policies that clearly aim to uphold the protections promised by net neutrality. What’s more, the FCC’s reasons for reclassifying ISPs as Title I entities, were “erroneous and unreasonable,” according to the news release.
The decision to file a petition came on the heels of a near-victory in the Senate, where politicians have been attempting to persuade members of Congress to overturn the FCC’s repeal. So far, 50 Senators have expressed a willingness to vote for a joint resolution of disapproval, which only requires 51 votes to pass without filibuster. If Senators can muster support, they could block the agency’s decision and prevent similar rulings from occurring in the future.
In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed optimism that Democrats could contest the repeal: “With full caucus support, it’s clear that Democrats are committed to fighting to keep the Internet from becoming the Wild West where ISPs are free to offer premium service to only the wealthiest customers while average consumers are left with far inferior options.” Senators have 60 legislative days to pass a resolution. The vote may happen this summer, just before the mid-term elections, at which point some Republican Senators may feel pressure from their constituencies to support the measure.
Some are now beginning to wonder whether the FCC’s repeal will affect the status of net neutrality throughout the world. According to an article in the Independent, Europe is currently devoted to net neutrality, though companies like BT and Sky have found ways to sidestep regulations. The UK, currently under EU rules, has doubled down on its commitment, having stated its goal to reach a Universal Service Obligation (USO) by 2020. That means in the next few years, the UK will have to provide internet speeds of at least 10 mbps to every UK citizen. The USO concept was first introduced in Finland.
Republicans are clearly not interested in the egalitarianism of net neutrality. For those supporting net neutrality, the Senate’s resolution and the recent petition filed by 21 states could be cause for hope.