In a move that surprised no one but disappointed open internet advocates everywhere, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal Obama-era regulations known as net neutrality. The highly contentious nature of the vote was highlighted by an abrupt break in Chairman Ajit Pai’s remarks to investigate a security threat. Security guards spent several minutes sweeping the FCC chambers with dogs before the commission resumed. Pai briefly acknowledged the threat, saying the commission was “acting on the recommendation of the Federal Protective Service” before resuming his comments.
The FCC adopted net neutrality regulations, called Title II, in 2015 in an effort to ensure internet service providers wouldn’t prioritize some online content over others. The regulations codified an existing regime that relied on net neutrality principles before they had a catchy name. The premise of Title II was to prevent a company like Verizon from speeding up its own streaming video site while slowing down competitors like Netflix. The rules also forbid internet providers from selling faster service to some companies at a premium.
“The internet wasn’t broken in 2015,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai during Thursday’s vote. “We were not living in some digital dystopia. To the contrary, the internet is one thing, perhaps the only thing in American society, that we can all agree has been a stunning success.”
In the months leading up to today’s vote, tech companies, politicians, and activists launched protests and online campaigns to pressure the FCC to retain the regulations. The FCC also received more than 21 million public comments on the proposal.
“There is no record in the history of the agency that has attracted so many filings,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel during the meeting Thursday. She was one of two commissioners who voted not to repeal the protections.
“The saddest part to me about all of this, it is painful for me to say this, that this is the new norm at the FCC, a norm where the majority ignores the will of the people,” said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn during an impassioned speech. She also dissented from the majority vote to repeal Title II.
“This is not the end of net neutrality,” Comcast said in a statement. “Despite repeated distortions and biased information, as well as misguided, inaccurate attacks from detractors, our Internet service is not going to change. Comcast customers will continue to enjoy all of the benefits of an open Internet today, tomorrow, and in the future.”
The FCC commissioners who voted to roll back net neutrality accused protesters of fear-mongering and said that the protections are not necessary to maintain an open internet.
“I still cannot endorse guilt by imagination,” said Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, adding that he believes there is merit to giving priority to some internet traffic. “I, for one, see great value in the prioritization of telemedicine and autonomous car technology over cat videos.”
On the eve of today’s vote, Washington state leaders announced a plan to maintain net neutrality for their constituents. Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, and other officials said they will create an environment in Washington that compels internet providers to offer the same speed of service for all online content. The plan would start by directing Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to establish a certification that internet companies can acquire by complying with net neutrality principles. Without that certification, the state would not provide benefits like easements and use of UTC poles. Washington is the first state to “proactively protect net neutrality,” according to Inslee.
Moments after the FCC’s vote, Ferguson announced his intentions to file a lawsuit with attorneys general across the country.
Update: A few hours after the, vote Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) announced plans to introduce a Congressional resolution to undo the FCC’s net neutrality repeal. The resolution will be introduced jointly with 15 of her colleagues in the Senate. It could overturn the FCC’s decision with a simple majority in both chambers of Congress.
“Washington state is going to stand up for innovation,” he said during a press conference Wednesday. “It is going to stand up for consumers and it is going to stand up for an open internet.”
But Washington will almost certainly face pushback from the FCC. The commission intends to block any states and cities that try to establish their own net neutrality protections. O’Rielly said he would not stand for “a hodgepodge of state rules” during Thursday’s meeting. It’s one of the many legal battles the FCC will likely be fighting in the wake of today’s vote.
“We are going to bend this to a more just outcome,” said Rosenworcel. “In the courts, in Congress, wherever we need to go to make sure that net neutrality remains the law of the land.”