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The FCC is about to unveil its net neutrality roll-back plan

By: Brian Fung, The Washington Post
April 25, 2017 Updated: April 25, 2017 at 4:17 pm
Caption +
FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, file photo, Federal Communication Commission Commissioner Ajit Pai speaks during an open hearing and vote on "Net Neutrality" in Washington. Trumpism is slowly taking hold on your phone and computer, as the FCC starts rolling back Obama-era measures, known as "net neutrality" rules, which were designed to keep phone and cable giants from favoring their own internet services and apps. Pai, President Donald Trump’s hand-picked FCC chief, wants to cut regulations that he believes are holding back faster, cheaper internet. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

WASHINGTON - Ajit Pai, the Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is set to release a plan Wednesday to roll back the government's net neutrality rules, setting the stage for another major showdown between tech companies and internet service providers over the future of the Web.

Pai is expected to outline his proposal in an afternoon speech at the Newseum, and could formally deliver the plan to his fellow commissioners later this week.

The draft will ask the public how best to preserve an open internet in the absence of strict FCC rules on providers, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. And it could pave the way for the FCC to reverse a key decision, undertaken in 2015, to regulate internet providers like legacy telephone companies.

If approved, Pai's proposal could weaken the FCC's authority over internet providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Charter Communications, and give more power to the industry.

Net neutrality - the idea that internet providers should not block or slow down some websites while benefiting others - has been a major flashpoint for ISPs and tech companies. Consumer groups have argued that internet providers have a strong incentive to force websites such as Netflix or Google to pay a fee in order to be displayed on consumers' screens, which could affect what services consumers can see and access online. Supporters of the broadband industry argue that ISPs should be able to seek out new business models to stay competitive.

Opponents of the FCC's regulation also argue that the 2015 decision to classify ISPs as "common carriers" similar to telephone companies violates the FCC's congressional charter and has deterred ISPs from upgrading their networks for fear of direct price regulation by the agency.

For many Republicans and broadband groups, undoing the common-carrier classification is the key reason for reversing the net neutrality rules.

In recent weeks, Pai has considered immediately invalidating that aspect of the net neutrality rules, some of the people said, by issuing a so-called declaratory ruling undoing the work of his Democratic predecessor, Tom Wheeler. Such a strategy could put pressure on Congress to negotiate a legislative compromise more quickly. But policy analysts say that would be a high-risk, high-reward strategy that could quickly run into legal challenges from supporters of net neutrality desperate to preserve the existing rules.

"By doing the immediate reclassification without comment and without process, it would give opponents of what he's trying to do greater confidence that they can prevail eventually with litigation," said an industry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak more freely.

Pai has also mulled replacing the FCC rules with voluntary commitments from ISPs not to block or slow internet traffic to customers. And he has floated the idea privately to various companies and groups that could be affected by that change in policy. Last week, Pai met with officials from Facebook, Apple and others in Silicon Valley to discuss how to replace the FCC's net neutrality rules. Earlier, he met with groups representing the country's wireless carriers, cable companies and tech firms.

But Pai's idea to rely on corporate promises is too weak to be effective by itself, according to Mignon Clyburn, the FCC's lone Democrat, and Terrell McSweeny, the top Democrat at the Federal Trade Commission.

"The elimination of clear rules protecting a free and open internet would put us in uncharted territory and would create uncertainty for ISPs, edge providers and consumers alike," the two wrote in a recent op-ed for Re/code.

The FCC declined to comment for this story.

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