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Critics fear the FCC’s vote, which was split down party lines, with Democrats opposed to repealing the rules and Republicans voting to do so, will open the floodgates for internet service providers (ISPs) to defy a founding principle of the internet that ensures all internet traffic is treated equally. The plan to repeal the rules was anticipated for months and met with fierce opposition.
Essentially, critics say, by repealing net neutrality, the FCC has made it possible for companies such as Verizon, AT&T, or Comcast to “speed up” or “slow down” internet access or block legal content. For example, net neutrality makes it impossible for an ISP to slow down Netflix in favor of their own streaming service.
The final vote on Thursday was 3 to 2. Republicans Ajit Pai, Brendan Carr, and Michael O’Reilly voted in favor of the repeal. Democrats Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn voted against it. During Pai’s comments before the final vote tally, the hearing was suspended and the room evacuated on the advice of “security.” A live stream from the Washington Post showed the room being swept by dogs and police officers.
Pai called the 2015 Open Internet Order order a “mistake” in his remarks before the final vote. He argued that the Obama-era rules stifled innovations and called the regulations “heavy-handed,” and called criticism of the proposal “apocalyptic.”
“We need to empower all Americans with digital opportunity. Not deny them the benefits of greater access and competition,” he said, later adding: “It is time for us to bring faster, better, and cheaper internet access to all Americans.”
Before the final vote tally, Rosenworcel called the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality “rash” and dissented against the “corrupt process” that brought the agency to the vote.
“As a result of today’s misguided action, our broadband providers will get extraordinary new powers,” she said. “They will have the power to block websites, throttle services, and censor online content. They will have the right to discriminate and favor the internet traffic of those companies with whom they have pay-for-play arrangements and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road.”
Clyburn said she was “outraged” over the proposal and said the FCC was “handing the keys” of the internet over to a “handful” of corporations. O’Reilly said critics of Thursday’s vote were engaging in “fear-mongering” and spreading “scary bedtime stories.”
While Pai seemed optimistic with what the repeal would bring, other, non-FCC commentators saw fault with the decision.
“The FCC’s 2015 rules were not radical utility regulation of the Internet, but an attempt by the FCC to do the best with the ancient statute that it had,” James Speta, a professor of law at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, said in a statement. “The rules were not perfect, but repealing them ignores that the internet now is the basic and essential communications service. Congress has the responsibility to update this law and, in the meantime, the FCC has the responsibility not to abdicate its role.”
Earlier this week internet creators and other prominent tech figures asked the FCC and Congress to cancel today’s vote, arguing that the repeal of net neutrality would be harmful for internet users in the United States.
“This proposed Order would repeal key network neutrality protections that prevent internet access providers from blocking content, websites and applications, slowing or speeding up services or classes of service, and charging online services for access or fast lanes to internet access providers’ customers,” the letter read. “The proposed Order would also repeal oversight over other unreasonable discrimination and unreasonable practices, and over interconnection with last-mile internet access providers.”
Net neutrality was enshrined into law in 2015 under the Open Internet Order. In May, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, an appointee of President Donald Trump, announced he would move forward with a plan to kill net neutrality, arguing that it stifles innovation.
In response, millions of comments were left by the public on the FCC’s website against Pai’s plan. However, evidence from New York Attorney General Eric Schniederman and others indicates that there were fraudulently submitted, causing members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate expressing concern with the vote.
The Senate wrote a letter to the FCC earlier this month that it should have delayed voting on the plan because they were working with an “incomplete understanding of the public record.” The FCC denied the Senate’s idea of delaying the vote, calling them “desperate.”
On Thursday, Rosenworcel also said the fake comments should have given the FCC pause.
“To date, nearly 24 million comments have been filed in this proceeding,” she said. “There is no record in the history of this agency that has attracted so many filings. But there’s something foul in this record: Two million comments feature stolen identities. Half a million comments are from Russian email addresses. Fifty thousand consumer complaints are inexplicably missing from the record. I think that’s a problem.”
She added: “I think our record has been corrupted and our process for public participation lacks integrity.”
The House also sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking for the agency to investigate the fake comments that appeared to have been posted on the FCC’s website.
Besides lawmakers, internet activists, social media users, and technology companies had rallied in support of keeping net neutrality as Pai’s plan came closer to becoming a reality.
On Tuesday, internet activists launched a “Break The Internet” protest in support of net neutrality, urging people to call lawmakers and express their support for the rules. Earlier this month, protests at Verizon stores across the country were held, and over the summer perhaps the largest online push to protest the FCC’s net neutrality plans, the Internet-Wide Day of Action To Save Net Neutrality, resulted in “tens of millions of people” seeing ads, images, and other material warning what the internet would be like without net neutrality.
After the vote, the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement blasting the decision.
“Since the end of the dial-up era, the FCC has enforced network neutrality principles and helped create the internet as we know it. Today’s misguided FCC action represents a radical departure that risks erosion of the biggest free speech platform the world has ever known.
Internet activist group Fight for the Future is planning to get people to petition Congress to review the FCC’s vote.
Andrew Wyrich is a politics staff writer for the Daily Dot, covering the intersection of politics and the internet. Andrew has written for USA Today, NorthJersey.com, and other newspapers and websites. His work has been recognized by the Society of the Silurians, Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE), and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).