Net neutrality is back in the Land of the Free – for now

Until the Democrats leave office, that is

The FCC has voted on a plan to reinstate net neutrality rules that require ISPs treat all data equally – rules which were canceled under the Trump administration in 2017.

The move comes just a month after the US Senate voted to confirm President Joe Biden's nominee Anna Gomez to the FCC board, ending the voting deadlock between those commissioners who lean to the right and those to the left. Shortly after the Senate's decision, Federal Communications Commission chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced plans to reinstitute net neutrality rules – and now she's taking action.

"The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking adopted today seeks comment on classifying fixed and mobile broadband internet service as an essential 'telecommunications' service under Title II of the Communications Act," the FCC explained in a statement [PDF].

"The proposal also seeks to restore clear, nationwide open internet rules that would prevent Internet Service Providers from blocking legal content, throttling speeds, and creating fast lanes that favor those who can pay for access."

Internet provision is currently classed as an information service under Title I of the 1934 Communications Act, which means there is a very light amount of regulation. Under a Title II classification ISPs are classed as a common carrier – like telephone and electricity providers – and are subject to much tighter oversight and restricted from allowing providers to throttle data speeds or sell prioritized access.

The FCC cited national security grounds for the move, explaining that the Title II classification would allow it to ensure that internet provision was secure enough to withstand attack. The same would be true for natural disasters, with the agency positing that it was irrational that phone services had to adhere to resilience standards but internet provision did not.

As part of the move the FCC has agreed to drop 26 regulatory provisions and over 700 individual regulations. This is a sop to opponents of the reform – such as Republican senators and the Republican-appointed commissioner Brendan Carr, who was sharply critical of the decision.

"The entire debate over whether Title II regulations are necessary or justified was settled years ago," he wrote.

"Indeed, when my FCC colleagues and I voted in 2017 to overturn the Obama Administration's failed, two-year experiment with Title II, activists and politicians alike guaranteed the American public that the internet would quite literally break without it. They predicted that prices for broadband would spike, that you would be charged for each website you wanted to visit, and that the internet itself would slow down. Did any one of those predictions come to pass? Of course not."

The agency will now begin investigating the issue before making a determination at a future date. Given there's barely a year to go before the next election, if a Republican wins the White House the idea will almost certainly get scrapped.

Meanwhile, there have been several attempts to get net neutrality enshrined in law – but all have come to naught so far. That's the preferred option for many, and would certainly be more effective than the constant back and forth by the FCC. ®

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