WASHINGTON – A move to undo federal regulations meant to uphold an open, free internet for all users has pitted providers like Comcast against online giants like Facebook — and millions of their customers — in a debate about protecting the First Amendment in a high-tech world.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed in January by President Donald Trump, is championing the repeal of a 2015 regulatory order that banned internet service providers (ISPs) from manipulating access and loading speeds for websites or applications, or from creating “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” based on a content provider’s willingness to pay extra fees.
Opponents of the new measure, dubbed Restoring Internet Freedom, say it does anything but. The FCC has been deluged with a record 20 million-plus public comments in response, almost entirely in opposition, inspired by worry that lighter regulations are likely to mean more costs to users for certain kinds of content or speed of access.
“Hands off the Internet, corporate profit mongers!” Apple Valley resident Joel Ronningen wrote to the FCC. The commission is taking comments until the end of August before finalizing its decision.
Critics fear that without strong FCC oversight, service providers have the leeway to purposely slow access to services from other companies that may be competitors.
“The internet service providers are the only ones who stand to gain from this,” said U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, a Democrat who has been a champion of protecting what’s known as “net neutrality,” or an open internet. Franken said he wants a system that allows people to access content ranging from the New York Times and Fox News to a blog from a student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth at the same speed.
Comcast, the leading internet provider in the Twin Cities, supports Pai’s proposal, along with AT&T, Verizon and other major telecommunications companies. Comcast has said it opposes “onerous utility-style regulation” for internet providers while also vowing it will never block, throttle or hinder consumers’ online activity. Comcast and Pai back what they call a regulatory “light touch.” Google, Netflix and a slew of other opponents have fought the proposal.
It’s the latest twist in a years-long debate that has moved in and out of court. The 2015 order reclassified internet companies from lightly regulated “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act to more heavily regulated “telecommunications services” under Title II, which explicitly forbids discrimination in web access.
Pai wants to move internet providers back to the first category, saying the extra oversight burdens small internet providers and hurts investment and innovation.
A group of rural broadband providers in the Midwest wrote to Pai in the spring in support of his plans, urging him to proceed in a way that allows for continued investment in rural broadband networks while at the same time ensuring a smarter path to net neutrality.
“Rural America urgently needs a smarter and more practical approach than rules based on laws written when our parents were stringing the countryside with copper and even cattle wire to connect neighbors on old party telephones,” the group wrote.
Sjoberg’s Inc., a Thief River Falls company that serves about 6,000 customers in northwest Minnesota, supports the concept of net neutrality but backs the move to rescind the 2015 regulations over concerns that they’re a burden on small internet providers in rural areas.
President Dick Sjoberg said that the new regulations have brought on extra expenses for attorneys, consultants and borrowing fees, and led to a climate of uncertainty.
“It’s just so onerous — the cost to everybody is so great — and at the end of the day [the expense] trickles down to the consumer,” Sjoberg said.
So why are supporters of net neutrality worried about losing the 2015 regulations?
“Because you don’t have a First Amendment protection against Comcast,” said Christopher Terry, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota. “If it were the government trying to prevent you from seeing certain things on the internet, you’d have a First Amendment defense.”
A Minneapolis nonprofit, the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, wrote to the FCC that it depends on the neutrality of the internet to receive and share large amounts of information, mostly from governments and nonprofits, on a limited budget that would leave no room for extra fees for “fast lanes.” The group said it produces videos, podcasts, written reports and other content that could be held hostage by firms that find its speech inconvenient if they were not required to be a neutral messenger.
There’s a fear that large providers like Comcast will effectively “toll booth” certain content that they don’t support in order to steer customers to content providers with which Comcast has struck a deal, said Christopher Mitchell, the institute’s director of community broadband networks.
“I think it’s pretty important that these companies, which already have tremendous power, not have more power over our ability to access the content that we want,” said Mitchell.
But he’s concerned that the FCC doesn’t care what the public thinks.
“I’m worried that whatever 20 million comments say, the head of the FCC hasn’t changed his talking points at all,” said Mitchell.
Some are looking to federal lawmakers for solutions.
“Congress shouldn’t be absolved of blame,” said Terry — though Mitchell and other critics don’t trust them to write a law that isn’t weaker than the current system.
Franken doesn’t think that Congress needs to step in — he just wants to make sure the FCC doesn’t dismantle the current regulations.
“We’re counting on the tidal wave of comments that are coming in to show [the FCC] that what they would be doing would be very unpopular,” said Franken.
Minnesotans from throughout the state have shared their views. Anything other than net neutrality “is a violation of freedom of speech and a level playing field in our free market system,” wrote Sheila Hansen, a Minneapolis resident.