A group representing Google, Facebook, Netflix, and close to 40 other large internet companies met with Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday to express its support for the agency's current net-neutrality rules, which Pai is reportedly planning to undo in the coming months.
In a filing sent to the FCC on Tuesday, the Internet Association said its leading officials told Pai and other agency representatives that the 2015 Open Internet Order "should be enforced and kept intact."
The 2015 Order is what set the current net-neutrality laws. It was adopted in a party-line vote by the Democrat-led FCC in 2015, and prevents internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing lawful internet traffic within their networks for financial gain.
In other words, your internet provider cannot slow down a Netflix, YouTube, or any other service and give other websites and apps preferential treatment, nor can it charge internet companies for faster access.
Since the companies represented by the Internet Association rely on internet service providers to reach customers, they are leery of a rollback to the current net-neutrality laws. According to the filing, the group said on Tuesday that the laws "must prohibit [internet] providers from charging for prioritized access," that they should apply to both wired and wireless internet providers, and that "interconnection should not be used as a choke point to artificially slow traffic or extract unreasonable tolls from over-the-top providers."
That last request is noteworthy. Internet companies like Netflix and Google have long been able to arrange agreements with internet providers and others to ensure their services are delivered faster than others (somewhat nullifying the idea of a truly "neutral" network). The current net-neutrality laws do not prohibit such arrangements, but they set up a system where companies could file a complaint if an internet provider abused their side of the deal. The Internet Association seems to be hoping Pai's plan will keep that in place.
Pai and Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly voted against the 2015 Order, and now hold a 2-1 majority at the FCC. The agency normally seats five commissioners, but President Donald Trump has yet to nominate people for the two vacant seats.
Though Pai has said he supports a "free and open internet" in the past, he has long taken issuewith the way the FCC reclassified internet providers as public utilities, placing them under Title II of the Communications Act, to enforce the net-neutrality laws. Upon the 2015 Order's passing, Pai said the 2015 Order "imposes intrusive government regulations that won't work to solve a problem that doesn't exist using legal authority the FCC doesn't have."
Pai and other Republicans have sought to reverse the Title II classification ever since, as they feel the greater regulatory scrutiny that comes with this classification discourages internet providers from investing in new network infrastructure. In theory, classifying internet providers as a utility allows the FCC to dictate how much those providers can charge for their services, but no such action has ever taken place.
Earlier this month, several media outlets reported that Pai revealed his initial plan to do just that in a meeting with various telecom industry groups. According to the reports, Pai wants internet providers to voluntarily pledge to abide by current net-neutrality principles, putting those policies in their terms of service agreements.
The idea, reportedly, is to then move enforcement of those net-neutrality principles from the FCC to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which could punish internet providers that break their pledges for unfair or deceptive practices, but have less authority over them as a whole.
Net-neutrality advocates do not trust internet providers so readily, as they're increasinglyspending billions to get into content and advertising businesses that would compete directly with internet companies. Advocates argue that Title II is necessary to legally enforce net-neutrality principles at all. They also note that terms of service agreements are regularly subject to change, that the FTC is tasked with enforcing many industries beyond telecommunications, and that an appeals-court ruling from last year has put the FTC's ability to regulate certain internet providers at all in doubt.
The Internet Association had been scheduled to meet with Pai prior to those reports, but its filing defends the current net-neutrality laws all the same. The group said that while it supports "light-touch" rules, those rules should be "ex-ante" and enforced by the FCC. In other words, it thinks the net-neutrality laws should stay close to where they are today -- designed to prevent internet providers from committing any net-neutrality violations before they can occur, instead of letting the FTC monitor any violations and punish companies after the fact.
That said, the filing does not make any mention of Title II specifically. The group says the 2015 Order should stay intact, but it also says it wants to preserve current protections "regardless of the legal or regulatory mechanism."
"While IA continues its work to protect consumers by maintaining existing FCC rules, its primary focus is on the end result - meaningful net neutrality rules that withstand the test of time," it wrote.
According to the filing, the trade group also pointed out that the 2015 Order was upheld in court last year -- a fact that could complicate any attempt by Pai to roll back the rules -- and said its "preliminary" research disputes the idea that the laws have had a "negative impact on broadband internet access service investment."
For what it's worth, we looked into the capital expenditure numbers of major internet providers earlier this year, and had trouble finding a definite trend. While investment levels as a whole haven't grown as fast as they had in the past, some internet providers have spent more on their networks over the past two years. It's also worth noting that wireless providers are in something of a transition period, as they wind down their 4G LTE networks and prepare for a rollout of new 5G technology.
Pai hasn't yet commented publicly on how he plans to go about undoing the net-neutrality laws, so all of this is subject to change. Various reports say he may introduce his proposal as soon as May, however.
The FCC did not respond to a request for comment.
Either way, any attempt at rolling back the current net-neutrality laws is likely to result in a deeply divided political battle, and vocal backlash from consumer advocates. The FCC received nearly 4 million public comments related to net-neutrality prior to the 2015 Order's passing.
Aside from net neutrality, the Internet Association says it also discussed the recent repeal of the FCC's former privacy laws, which would've required internet providers to get your explicit consent before sharing your browsing data with advertisers.
The group did not outright condemn the ruling -- which doesn't affect its members, some of whom have lucrative digital advertising businesses -- but reiterated the common argument that internet providers are in a position to collect more customer data than others, hinting that they should be held to stricter privacy standards.