The Federal Communications Commission voted 2-1 Thursday to proceed with the reversal of President Obama-era regulations governing how internet service providers (ISPs) treat internet traffic.
Under existing rules, ISPs are required to give equal priority to all internet traffic. Without the rules, Rep Peter Welch says, big businesses could pay extra in order to have their content delivered to online users faster.
“This threatens net neutrality,” Welch said Thursday. “There’s just no way around it.”
Critics of the FCC’s decision, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, say it will stifle freedom of expression as well as economic competition online by allowing major companies to pay for “fast lanes” and get special treatment from ISPs. Online content that’s not from companies paying extra to have their traffic prioritized will be slower, critics say, which will put well-funded companies at an advantage over small businesses or startups that can’t afford to pay extra.
Among those critics are Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy. Vermont’s senators both signed on to a May 9 letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai calling on him to preserve the net neutrality rules and citing a series of court decisions that led to the rules that are currently in place.
“The issue is settled,” the letter says. “We urge you not to repeat past mistakes and ask instead that you maintain the successful current regime.”
In addition to Leahy and Sanders, 11 other U.S. Senators signed onto the letter, but the FCC vote did not go their way.
Now that the FCC has voted to begin rolling back the rules, NPR reports there is a 90-day public comment period before the commission drafts the exact language of its new rule and votes on whether or not to implement that language.
Welch said in an interview Thursday that members of the public should make their feelings on the issue known to the FCC. He noted that public comment was helpful in the creation of the net neutrality rules that the FCC is now trying to reverse.
“The public comment was so overwhelming that President Obama, among others, noticed. And he was the one who ultimately came in and supported … net neutrality,” Welch said.
Welch also raised questions about the motives of the companies asking the FCC to roll back net neutrality rules. ISPs supporting the rule change claim that they will treat internet traffic fairly, and say the change would not result in pay-for-priority internet “fast lanes.” Welch wants more assurance.
“If the supporters of this regulatory change are sincere in saying that it’s not intended to erode net neutrality, they’ve got to put up legislation that backs up that guarantee,” Welch said.
In other words, Welch would like to see legal protections in place for net neutrality, whether the FCC creates them or Congress does. But he acknowledges any new legal protections coming from Congress would need Republican support.
“We’d have to have the votes, and in this Congress it’s unlikely that we would. The chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, is against the existing status quo, so they’ve got the votes,” he said. “A lot of us could propose legislation, but that doesn’t mean we can get it passed.”