Public relations ploy
Internet providers who have ducked meetings to discuss Pai’s proposal to roll back Wheeler’s net neutrality rules have chosen to weigh in in other ways. Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T have all published comments with the FCC. In filings, which range from a couple dozen pages to more than 100, as well as in blog posts on company websites, the providers are careful to show support for the concept of net neutrality — just not the rules Wheeler implemented to enforce it.
“Comcast has been a longstanding and consistent supporter of the Commission’s policy of ensuring that the Internet remains free and open to all,” the company wrote in a filing.
In a blog post on its website, AT&T said it supported an open internet that ensures “freedom of expression and a free flow of ideas.” But, it added that current net-neutrality rules create “an environment of market uncertainty that does little to advance internet openness.”
After Pai announced his intentions to reclassify broadband, Verizon released a video on YouTube called “Where we stand on Net Neutrality,” featuring its general counsel, Craig Silliman.
“The FCC is not talking about killing the net neutrality rules. In fact, not we, nor any other ISP, are asking them to kill the open internet rules,” Silliman said.
But there’s no shortage of folks who disagree. The net neutrality that internet providers claim to support is not the net neutrality defined in the existing rules, said Nicholas Economides, an economics professor specializing in telecommunications at New York University’s Stern School of Business. For providers, an open internet means an internet free of regulations that prevent them from affecting speeds, blocking, and prioritizing content, and it’s a public relations ploy, he said.
Internet service providers “may have a PR position in which they say they love the open internet, but what they mean by open internet, does not include network neutrality,” Economides said. “It’s stuff that lobbyists put around because it sounds good to the average congressman or even the average voter, but it has nothing to do with the public interest.”
Congress steps in
Congress, which has the ultimate say in what the FCC can or cannot do, has begun to weigh in, hoping to pass legislation that will set into law what level of regulation the FCC can impose.
But that is proving to be difficult.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, this summer invited CEOs from Verizon and Comcast, as well as internet companies such as Facebook, Google and Netflix — supporters of current net-neutrality rules — to testify this month on how a compromise might be hammered out.
“It’s time for Congress to call a halt on the back-and-forth and set clear net neutrality ground rules for the internet,” Walden optimistically said in a statement released in July. “In some form or another, we have been working for at least 20 years on the intertwined goals of incentivizing the huge investments needed to connect Americans, while keeping the internet open and protecting consumer privacy.”
The hearing, which was set for Sept. 7, was postponed, however, because no company had accepted the invitation to appear, according to Reuters.
Republicans said they postponed the meeting to allow more time for providers and internet companies to discuss possible solutions. In the meantime, GOP leadership, which supports scaling back Wheeler’s rules, have reportedly warned Google, Facebook and other technology companies to back off their strong support of the current regulations, according to Axios.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, introduced a bill in February 2015 to overturn Wheeler’s rules. The bill, which has 31 Republican cosponsors and no Democrats, has not been taken up by the subcommittee since, and Blackburn said this year there are no plans to because she wants the FCC to act first on net neutrality.
In May, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced a bill like Blackburn’s that would nullify Wheeler’s rules. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Commerce Committee, introduced a similar bill in 2015.
Most Democrats oppose any rollback of the net-neutrality rules. Eleven Democratic representatives who sit on committees with jurisdiction over the FCC and the internet filed a comment last month with the FCC calling into question Pai’s commitment to protecting the public interest.
“The agency’s responsibility is to the entire public and it is required to balance multiple important considerations,” the representatives wrote. “The FCC’s current proposal does not satisfy the Commission’s legal obligation to consider the breadth of important national priorities.”
Economides for one is doubtful that Congress can pass any sort of net-neutrality legislation. With pressure to pass tax reform, health care changes, immigration reform, and fund a border wall and construct a budget, net neutrality is unlikely to be a high priority, he said.
“It’s very difficult, time consuming and complicated to pass a telecommunications law,” Economides said. “People are going to say, ‘Why doesn’t Pai do the job and let’s see what happens?’”
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.