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FCC will vote on restoring net neutrality rules

The Federal Communications Commission will vote on April 25th on a proposal to restore net neutrality rules, the agency announced on Wednesday.

If the five-member panel votes to restore the rules, internet service providers (ISP) will be reclassified from information services to common carriers, bringing stricter regulations with the change.

The idea of net neutrality is to keep ISPs from treating internet traffic differently by throttling or blocking, for example. The FCC installed net neutrality rules back in 2015, but they were repealed in 2017 under a Trump-nominated chair. Republicans on the commission believed that removing what they saw to be onerous rules would lead to greater innovation. Democrats believed that repealing the rules would lead to disruptive throttling of internet traffic. Though neither scenario really came true, some point to net neutrality rules in California and the lingering threat of return at the federal level as heading off major changes that could soon be undone.

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, introduced a proposal to bring back net neutrality in October last year, kicking off the rulemaking process. That process came later than many progressives anticipated because of a long delay in confirming a third Democrat to the commission to secure the votes.

“After the prior administration abdicated authority over broadband services, the FCC has been handcuffed from acting to fully secure broadband networks, protect consumer data, and ensure the internet remains fast, open, and fair,” Rosenworcel said in a statement on Wednesday. “A return to the FCC’s overwhelmingly popular and court-approved standard of net neutrality will allow the agency to serve once again as a strong consumer advocate of an open internet.”

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On a background call with reporters on Wednesday, a senior FCC official tried to get ahead of common critiques of net neutrality, including that the common carrier classification would allow the FCC to impose price regulations on ISPs. The official said this proposal would not allow for rate regulation. They also reaffirmed that the agency has no authority to regulate speech and believes net neutrality will actually facilitate freedom of speech.

The FCC is also touting the real-world benefits it thinks will come out of a vote to restore net neutrality. One benefit, according to the FCC official, is granting the agency greater oversight over internet outages if ISPs are classified as common carriers. Increased oversight authority will also let the FCC incorporate new cybersecurity standards into network policies to better secure internet infrastructure, the official added. And it will help extend efforts to protect national security by preventing certain Chinese telecommunications firms already stripped of their ability to operate in the US from offering broadband services as well, a second official said.

And despite threats to executive branch agencies’ legal authorities, the FCC says it’s confident that new net neutrality rules can hold up in court given that earlier iterations have held up to judicial scrutiny in the past.

Still, criticism of the move rolled in soon after the news. Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of broadband industry group USTelecom, said in a statement that just as the goal of giving all Americans access to high-speed internet “is now within reach, the FCC is pumping the brakes with this entirely counterproductive, unnecessary, and anti-consumer regulatory distraction.”

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If the commissioners vote to approve the proposal, the reclassification and much of the rules will take effect 60 days after they’re published to the federal register.

Update April 3rd, 12:30PM ET: Added statements from FCC officials, US Telecom.

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