The Federal Communications Commission, now led by Donald Trump appointee Ajit Pai as its chairman, has started chipping away at the net neutrality rules that the Obama administration implemented.
Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, before he stepped down from his post last month, warned against the planned pushback by the Trump administration on the net neutrality laws. Pai, if he is indeed planning to repeal all net neutrality laws, will not be able to do so quickly due to the processes involved.
The new chairman, however, has the support of the majority of the commissioners of the FCC, and while there has been no outright statement that net neutrality will be dismantled, the moves to weaken its policies have already started.
Net Neutrality Transparency Suspended
The FCC on Feb. 23 voted 2-1 along party lines for the suspension of net neutrality transparency requirements for broadband providers with less than 250,000 customers.
With the suspension, more ISPs will no longer have to publicly disclose information to customers regarding the price of their service, other fees such as service charges, and any data caps that they will implement. Such information helps customers in making informed decisions on which broadband provider to sign up with.
Under the Obama administration, the exemption from the transparency requirements was only given to ISPs with less than 100,000 subscribers. The vote by the FCC, however, protects ISPs of up to 250,000 subscribers from what Pai refers to as "needless regulations," and presents the first major regulatory action against the Obama administration's net neutrality laws.
Major Broadband Companies Benefit From FCC Ruling
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the lone Democrat in the FCC, was the one who voted against the move, claiming that it would exempt billion-dollar companies from being transparent with their customers. The ruling only expanded the exemption from transparency rules to ISPs to those with less than 250,000 subscribers, which meant that it would not apply to major companies such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, but many ISPs owned by conglomerates will be involved, Clyburn noted.
"Many of the nation's largest broadband providers are actually holding companies, comprised of many smaller operating companies," said Clyburn, adding that the new order by the FCC will affect even major broadband companies as the connection count requirement is not checked at the holding company level.
Pai, however, defended the ruling by saying that the ISPs, instead of focusing on the paperwork previously required by the transparency rules, should now spend their resources on building out better broadband services to the rural parts of the United States. The FCC has actually just released the rules for its rural broadband fund auction, wherein $2 billion worth of funds is available for ISPs to develop broadband networks in rural areas.
Consumers On The Losing End
Consumer advocates, meanwhile, argue that the expanded exemption will significantly hurt consumers. Customers should know the details behind the pricing practices of ISPs, and have the right to know if a broadband provider is throttling internet traffic.
"How can it be good for consumers if companies conceal anything about the price, speed, and data caps for their broadband service?" asks Public Knowledge general counsel Ryan Clough.
Pai is seemingly just starting though, and supporters of net neutrality should prepare for more of such moves from the current FCC chairman.