Net neutrality facing messy U.S. political situation

Republicans are dead set against FCC rules and have several tricks up their sleeves.

tom wheeler, fcc, net neutrality

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wants strong net neutrality rules.

Net Neutrality Battle:

As expected, U.S. regulators have taken a major step forward in bringing strong net neutrality rules forward to prevent internet service providers from discriminating against certain kinds of content.

On Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler outlined his proposal, the crux of which relies on regulators reclassifying ISPs as telecommunications service providers rather than continuing on with their current standing as information service providers.

The key distinction of this “Title II reclassification” would give the FCC the authority to regulate ISPs, both wired and wireless, and therefore prevent discriminating acts.

“These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services,” Wheeler wrote in an op-ed for Wired.

“My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.”

While the battle is U.S.-based, the rest of the world is watching with interest since many internet companies that rely on neutral networks – such as Google and Netflix – are headquartered there. U.S. rules will inevitably affect how those services are delivered on a global basis.

The FCC’s five-person committee will vote on the proposal on Feb. 26. With three Democrats including Wheeler and only two Republican commissioners, it’s highly likely the proposal will pass.

From there, or even before then, things are likely to get messy because of the complicated structure of U.S. politics.

Republicans, who control both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, are dead set against the proposal.

They argue that allowing the FCC to reclassify ISPs is akin to regulating the internet, which they say has evolved nicely without any interference from authorities so far.

There are a number of ways they could try to scuttle the FCC’s reclassification, starting with a “motion of disapproval.”

Such a move would be similar to what has happened in Canada a few times, when the federal government overturned or sent back to the drawing board rulings by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

The CRTC’s decision not to allow Wind Mobile to start up back in 2009 and its ruling in favour of usage-based internet billing in 2011 were two examples.

Further complicating matters in the U.S. is the fact that President Barack Obama has veto power over Congress in many cases. Given that Obama has voiced strong support for Title II reclassification, he’s likely to torpedo any short-term moves by Republicans to stop the FCC’s effort.

There is open debate, however, as to whether Republicans could draft a bill that is veto-proof.

Republicans could also try long-term maneuvers, such as rewriting the U.S. Telecommunications Act to either strip the FCC of its ability to reclassify or transfer regulation of the internet over to the Federal Trade Commission. They could also try to de-fund the FCC, although that would be something of a scorched-earth move.

Pro-net neutrality activists are optimistic about the direction the situation is going and believe Republicans aren’t really interested in fighting the FCC tooth and nail. More than four million Americans have written in support of strong rules, while big companies such as Google and Netflix are also behind it.

“It’s not worth the risk,” says Josh Tabish, campaigns coordinator for Vancouver-based Open Media. “I think they’re starting to realize that they can let the telecom companies fight their own battles in court.”

Those court battles are almost assured, with the likes of AT&T and Verizon reportedly ready to sue the FCC the moment it passes its rules.

Whatever happens, the battle for net neutrality in the United States is far from over and is bound to get more complicated from here on in.

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