Title (II) Fight Over Net Neutrality Brews Again

Cable operators and Internet service providers are in for another fight over net neutrality rules, but this time the Trump administration and congressional majorities are on their side.

Foes of FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s latest regulatory rollback are already ramping up their efforts to raise money to protest the GOP chairman’s announced plan to un-reclassify ISPs and wired and mobile broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act.

The chairman is also deep-sixing the “general conduct standard” under which the previous Democratic FCC tried to rein in usage-based pricing, as well as getting the agency out of the interconnection regulation business. Pai is also seeking input on what to do with the Open Internet Order’s rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization, which includes “keeping, modifying or eliminating” them.

Fellow Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly cheered on the effort, signaling the chairman has the votes to reverse course.

Pai plans to vote on his proposal at the May 18 meeting, but with Democrat Mignon Clyburn vowing to fight it. Should Clyburn choose not to show up for the vote, it would deny Pai the necessary quorum to pass it and delay his plans. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a major supporter of Title II, said he would talk with Clyburn about the right path forward.

The text of the notice was released April 27, asking so many questions it seemed as though Pai were crowdsourcing the issue. He has allowed for plenty of time for input on the proposal. The date for final comments is Aug. 16.

ISPs, meanwhile, were renewing their pledges to protect an Open Internet, and saying they do not and would not block or throttle.

Some were also calling for Congress to step in to unmuddy the waters when it comes to the FCC’s authority to regulate the Internet. They include Pai and O’Rielly. In an interview with controversial website Breitbart.com, Pai said, “I think the best solution would be for Congress to tell us what they want the rules of the road to be for the FCC and the country when it comes to the digital world.”

At a minimum, Congress could clarify that ISPs are not telecoms subject to Title II.

Legislation is a possibility, given that Congress and the White House are under Republican control, though one cable executive who asked to remain anonymous said it’s a fairly remote one. If it does happen, the executive said, it would likely need to be appended to must-pass legislation such as an infrastructure bill.

Pai’s move could force some Democrats to the table to try and get protections against throttling, blocking and paid prioritization in law, given the alternative of letting the Republicans call the shots. But a bipartisan bill would be a tough ask if Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, is any gauge. At a press conference outside the Capitol, where he joined Clyburn in protest, he said Republicans had “poisoned the well” and signaled he didn’t think the other side would agree to substantive protections.

A Dingo Ate My Title II

Following harsh and sometimes personal criticisms of Pai and his plan, the network neutrality advocacy groups that launched petition drives and protests to get FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to pivot toward Title II in 2015 — it famously included a segment on HBO’s news-satire show Last Week Tonight in which John Oliver compared Wheeler to a “dingo babysitter” — were pledging a similar fight.

Advocacy groups Free Press, Fight For the Future, Demand Progress and others have already launched a crowdfunding campaign to relaunch website BattleForTheNet.com, which served as a “hub” for Internet Slowdown Day, one of the protests in favor of Title II.

“We need Battle for the Net and the organizations behind it now more than ever to ensure that the Trump FCC doesn’t kill the net neutrality rules,” Gigi Sohn, former counselor to Wheeler, said. “Their work was absolutely critical to getting the strongest-ever net neutrality rules in place in 2015 when I was at the FCC.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.