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FCC unravels Obama-era net neutrality rules

Ty Markham protests a pending FCC proposal to roll back net neutrality regulations outside a Verizon store in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017.
FILE - Ty Markham protests a pending FCC proposal to roll back net neutrality regulations outside of the Verizon store in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Net neutrality advocates promised a swift legal response immediately following a Thursday vote by the Federal Communications Commission to roll back Obama-era rules governing internet service providers and replace them with a lighter regulatory framework.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — While Sen. Mike Lee celebrated the outcome of a Thursday vote by the Federal Communications Commission to roll back Obama-era rules governing internet service providers, net neutrality advocates promised a swift legal response to the decision.

Lee took to the floor of the U.S. Senate shortly after the FCC action, praising FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and discounting critics' assertions that the changes would hurt new tech business efforts and allow ISPs to prey on ordinary consumers.

"I want to congratulate FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for his brave accomplishment today," the Utah Republican said. "He’s fought for what he knows is right, and he’s done so in the face of extreme pressure and, at times, overwhelming opposition."

The FCC decision returns internet service providers to their pre-2015 classification as information service companies, which comes with fewer rules and less stringent oversight than the Title II telecommunication designation that has been in place the past two years.

Opponents say the changes will allow Internet Service Providers to create different levels of service speeds, potentially throttling users' access to certain websites while offering optimized access to sites providers own or have paid agreements with.

In the months leading up to the vote, critics and supporters exchanged pointed jabs on the issue, and more than 23 million comments were filed with the FCC, though the veracity of that input has been questioned as researchers have uncovered hundreds of thousands of falsified and bot-created submissions.

Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood said in a statement released moments after the vote that his group will join other net neutrality supporters in lobbying Congress to overturn the FCC's actions, as well as pursuing legal remedies.

“Net neutrality is the nondiscrimination law of the internet," Wood said. "It’ll be just as necessary tomorrow as it is today. That’s why open-internet advocates and millions of internet users and activists will do everything to restore it in the near term and over the long haul.

"We’ll work tirelessly to fix the many legal, factual and moral failings that the FCC majority used to prop up its flawed and foundering decision," he said.

The 3-2 vote to approve the Restoring Internet Freedom proposal, crafted by Pai — a President Barack Obama appointee who was designated chairman by President Trump in January — broke along partisan lines with supporters and opponents on the panel offering lengthy statements supporting their relative stances on the changes before the vote was levied.

The vote mirrors the partisan split that favored Democrats when the Title II designation was approved in 2015.

Lee said the Obama-era internet regulations favored bigger companies and disadvantaged "young punks, startups that want to win customers away from old-school companies," but at least one of those "punks" in Utah disagrees with the GOP senator.

BYU grad Johnny Hanna, a serial tech entrepreneur who co-founded Entrata, a successful property management software firm before going on to launch Homie, an online real estate company, told the Deseret News in an earlier story on the FCC proposal that the Title II rules were working fine.

"The internet is already free, open and transparent, and startups like us are benefiting from it," Hanna said. "I haven't heard any of my peers complaining. This proposal has a great name but seems to do the opposite."

Millcreek resident Dr. Therus "Dutch" Kolff, a net neutrality supporter who participated in a protest at the Sugar House Verizon outlet last week, said in a statement following the vote that he's very disappointed by the decision and believes it will lead to abuses.

"It’s an absurd title, as it does nothing but the opposite regarding 'internet freedom,' bringing us closer to that experienced by those in Russia and China," Kolff said. "The FCC is clearly not interested in what either the American public wants nor what’s good for businesses."

In a statement before the vote, commission member Jessica Rosenworcel, an Obama appointee, explained why she would be dissenting.

"This decision puts the Federal Communications Commission on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public," Rosenworcel said. "The future of the internet is the future of everything. That is because there is nothing in our commercial, social or civic lives that have been untouched by, uninfluenced or unmoved by its power."

Pai, who cast his own dissenting vote in 2015, said the rule changes instituted then were not necessary at the time, nor are they currently necessary.

"The internet was not broken in 2015," he said. "We were not living in some digital dystopia. To the contrary, the internet is one thing, perhaps the only thing, in American society that we can all agree has been a stunning success."

As the changes of internet service regulatory overlays seem to be following partisan power shifts at the federal level, Lee is calling for a legislative response to bring the swinging pendulum to a stop.

"We should not rest easy," he said. "A future administration could undo all Chairman Pai's hard work at a moment's notice if Congress doesn’t act to solidify his accomplishment."

And to that end, Lee has introduced a bill looking to cement the current FCC rules into law with his Restoring Internet Freedom Act.

Other members of Utah's congressional delegation also voiced their support Thursday for bringing internet rule-making under the umbrella of the federal legislature, including Rep. Mia Love.

"A permanent solution to net neutrality needs to be decided by Congress," Love said in a statement to the Deseret News. "This game of regulatory Ping-Pong should not be played with the internet."

According to a web posting Thursday afternoon by the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed Pai's proposal, Congress could also play a role in repealing the just-approved rule changes.

ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley wrote that the relatively new Congressional Review Act allows Congress to "reverse regulatory actions within 60 legislative days of their enactment."

The act was used back in March to walk back FCC protections that kept telecoms from selling internet users' browser histories and other information, Stanley noted, and it could be implemented again to undo Thursday's actions.

The FCC proceeding was interrupted for about 15 minutes in the midst of commission comment on the proposal when Pai announced that the room in the FCC's Washington, D.C., headquarters needed to be cleared for security reasons. Commission members and attendees were escorted out of the meeting but allowed back in a short time later.