For net neutrality, all roads head to courts
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For net neutrality, all roads head to courts

New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman has announced he will lead a multi-state lawsuit against the vote that “gave big telecom an early Christmas present”.

world Updated: Dec 15, 2017 23:55 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
Net Neutrality,Federal Communications Commission,FCC
Demonstrators rally outside the Federal Communication Commission building to protest against the end of net neutrality rules in Washington DC.(AFP)

While the White House expectedly welcomed the voting down of net neutrality rules by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday, the decision appeared headed for legal challenge, with several US states and organisations announcing their plans to go to court within hours.

New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman has announced he will lead a multi-state lawsuit against the vote that “gave big telecom an early Christmas present” and “will give ISPs (Internet Service Providers) new ways to control what we see, what we do, and what we say online”.

Washington state, which has said it will enforce net neutrality on ISPs operating within its boundaries through other means, will also sue, and that should be a matter of concern for the successful challenge it mounted against President Donald Trump’s original travel ban, and getting it stayed twice.

The Internet Association, a DC-based trade body representing Google, Facebook and other IT companies, said the rollback was a “departure from more than a decade of broad, bipartisan consensus on the rules governing the internet” and that it was weighing legal options in a lawsuit.

The American Civil Liberties Union also plans to go to court.

But Trump’s press secretary Sarah Sanders welcomed the rollback of what she described were “burdensome regulations” at the White House press briefing shortly after the vote.

Voting along party lines on Thursday, the five-member FCC voted 3-2 to roll back an Obama-era regulation that prevented ISPs such as AT&T, Comcast, Cox and Verizon from speeding up, slowing or throttling net access, in a public hearing interrupted briefly by a security threat.

After a meeting voting to end net neutrality, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai answers a question from a reporter in Washington on Thursday. (AP)

“We are helping consumers and promoting competition,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said before the vote. “Broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially to underserved areas.”

He had announced plans to overturn the regulation in November, inviting comments and debate.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, one of the two Democrats on the commission who opposed the proposal, said she was “among the millions … outraged” and “what saddens me the most today is that the agency that is supposed to protect you is actually abandoning you”.

The debate that ensued was acrimonious and in Pai’s case, personal, with net neutrality activists naming his children on placards hung near his home. The chairman, an Indian American, also faced racially-charged attacks from critics within his own community, to the outrage of some.

Pai, a long-time opponent of net neutrality who voted against the 2015 regulation, favours “light-touch” approach to regulation, and believes ISPs will not speed up or slow down net access depending who pays and who doesn’t — called paid prioritization. And the Federal Trade Commission, the regulator that keeps the market free and fair, will keep them in line.

Broadband for America, a group representing telecom industry groups and companies such as AT&T Inc, and Comcast Corp., sought to assure consumers in an ad recently that it would preserve an “open internet” and will not block legal content and will not throttle data speed — but did not mention paid prioritization.

That’s what worries critics of the rollback most. While it’s not clear if ordinary consumers will be impacted and how, smaller IT service provides and start-ups are likely to suffer most definitely, with their very survival on the line.

“Without these rules (net neutrality), internet service providers will be able to favour certain websites and e-businesses, or the platforms they use to garner new customers, over others by putting the ones that can pay in fast lanes and slowing down or even blocking others,” said a letter jointly written by more than 200 companies, including Reddit, Airbnb, Twitter and Pinterest in November.

Net neutrality is not history in the United States, not yet. As Internet Association said in the statement, “The fight isn’t over”.

First Published: Dec 15, 2017 09:23 IST