FCC revives debate over net neutrality as Democrats gain majority

When the Federal Communications Commission in 2014 asked the public to comment on how to regulate internet providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, it received more than a million responses. Aggrieved customers crashed the commission’s website. More than 7,800 of the comments contained f-bombs.

“It is absolutely maddening that the FCC would give free rein to this monopoly to screw customers over,” one commenter wrote. “There is no free market competition and it is unamerican.”

The FCC effort became the landmark 2015 decision — known as “net neutrality” — to regulate internet service as a public utility, akin to water or electricity. That classification granted the FCC broad oversight over internet service providers, including ensuring they did not discriminate or charge unreasonable rates.

The agency repealed the rule in 2017 under the Trump administration, arguing that the private sector would make better decisions than the government.

Now the FCC is preparing to reinstate net neutrality as the law of the land. The agency argues that restoring the rule will improve consumers’ experience with internet providers — including by enabling it to better track broadband service outages and network reliability.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a speech Tuesday that due to high costs of entry into the market, there is only one high-speed broadband provider in some parts of the country.

“That provider might be the only game in town,” she said. “You need a referee on the field looking out for the public interest.”

The move came after Anna Gomez was sworn in as the FCC’s fifth commissioner on Monday, breaking a long-standing deadlock at the agency and giving Democrats a 3-2 majority.

Industry groups have stepped forward to declare that internet providers have not discriminated and will not discriminate, and that FCC regulation is overkill.

“America’s broadband providers are fiercely committed to an open internet. That has not and will not change,” said Jonathan Spalter, CEO of USTelecom, an industry group representing broadband providers including AT&T and Verizon, in a statement.

The FCC is placing the issue at the top of its agenda and is expected to release the text of the proposed rule Thursday. But the process will take months, and the clock is ticking: If Biden loses the presidential election next year, a Republican administration might repeal the rule again.

If the FCC gives the green light at its Oct. 19 monthly meeting, the agency will embark on a new rulemaking process with public comment.

Rosenworcel said in the speech that she knows it will be a fierce fight. “I have, in fact, been to this rodeo before,” she said.

Unchanged since the last clash: Internet service providers earn some of the lowest customer-satisfaction ratings in corporate America — a reflection, regulators argue, of monopoly power wielded by a short list of providers.

The 2023 American Customer Satisfaction Index — calculated from surveys with tens of thousands of consumers — gave internet service providers a score of 68 out of 100, the second-lowest rating among 43 industries. Only gas stations provided consumers with less satisfaction (with a score of 65).

But the technology has evolved since the early debate over net neutrality, when the internet’s pipes were slower and smaller. At the time, economists warned that internet providers had an incentive to throttle certain types of websites — such as bandwidth-heavy video-streaming services like Netflix. Internet providers theoretically could determine which websites lived and died, based on personal preferences, or who could pay the most.

These days, the threat of an internet service provider squeezing Netflix seems less likely. The internet’s pipes have gotten so wide that there is generally enough to go around. After the removal of the net neutrality rule in 2017, there haven’t been reports of an internet provider choking a website to death.

Comcast Senior Vice President Sena Fitzmaurice said Tuesday that the company has not changed its policies since the repeal of the net neutrality rule in 2017. Comcast chief executive Dave Watson wrote in 2018 that the company “won’t block, throttle or discriminate against lawful content.”

Tim Wu, a Columbia University Law School antitrust expert who coined the phrase “net neutrality” in the early 2000s, said one new consideration this time around is the rise of “Big Tech” — a term “that didn’t exist 20 years ago.” While the early debate had been just about the power of internet providers, the makers of internet applications such as Google and Amazon are now vastly powerful, making it important that internet providers don’t tip the scales toward one of them unfairly.

“Among other things, [internet service providers’] neutrality is important to prevent making Google and Amazon unassailable,” Wu said.

Blair Levin, former executive director of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, said it remains to be seen whether the issue will resonate as much with the public this time.

“Net neutrality, like all sequels, has a built-in audience,” he said. “But whether it will prove to be the exception that ‘Godfather II’ proved to be, or whether it will be the more normal one that the latest ‘Indiana Jones’ proved to be, well, I guess we’ll have to find out.”