The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to repeal net neutrality rules, over the objection of Democrats in Congress, Internet activists and online companies.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, and Commissioner Brendan Carr, all Republicans, supported the proposed rollback of the Obama-era rules. Democratic Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel opposed the change.
As Pai was reading his statement in support of the rules change, he abruptly recessed the meeting due to a security threat, and the room was evacuated. A bomb-sniffing dog was brought in, and the meeting reconvened several minutes later.
The net neutrality rules were adopted by the FCC under the Obama administration in 2015 and were aimed at ensuring Internet service providers treat all web content equally. The rules prohibit Internet service providers from blocking, throttling or interfering with web traffic, and reclassified broadband Internet service as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act.
Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom order effectively reverses the net neutrality rules and classifies broadband Internet service as an information service under Title I of the Communications Act.
"Let's be clear: returning to the legal framework that governed the Internet from President Clinton's pronouncement in 1996 until 2015 is not going to destroy the Internet. It's not going to end the Internet as we know it. It is not going to kill democracy," Pai said. "...Simply put, by by returning to the light-touch Title I framework, we are helping consumers and promoting competition."
Rosenworcel, who opposed the repeal, called Thursday's action "rash" and said the FCC has been disrespectful to U.S. citizens by undoing the net neutrality rules.
"Net neutrality is Internet freedom. I support that freedom," Rosenworcel said. "I dissent from this rash decision to roll back net neutrality rules. I dissent from the corrupt process that has brought us to this point. And I dissent from the contempt this agency has shown our citizens in pursuing this path today. 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."
Supporters of net neutrality are expected to challenge the FCC's action in court, and one group, Free Press, has already said it will sue the commission.
Thursday’s vote was highly anticipated, even though Pai announced in April the FCC would start the process of undoing the rules.
The commission received more than 21.7 million public comments on net neutrality, an unprecedented amount. But the public record was scrutinized after several analyses concluded millions of fake and fraudulent comments were filed with the FCC.
The agency said more than 7.5 million comments contained the same single sentence in favor of net neutrality: “I am in favor of strong net neutrality under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.”
Those comments alone were associated with 50,508 unique names and mailing addresses, but nearly all of the 7.5 million comments came from 45,000 unique email addresses created by a website that generates fake emails.
More than 440,000 comments in support of net neutrality also came from a single mailing address in Russia. Those comments were filed with the FCC on July 12, the “Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman mounted his own investigation into the FCC comments, and discovered 2 million comments were filed using stolen identifies of real Americans.
Democrats in both the House and Senate, along with Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, Schneiderman and Rosenworcel, called on Pai to delay’s Thursday’s vote, to no avail.
In the run-up to the FCC’s vote, Internet activists and online companies mounted protests in an effort to stop it from happening. Protesters appeared outside of Verizon stores and congressional offices in more than 700 cities last week to call on Congress to intervene.
Demonstrations then migrated online Tuesday for “Break the Internet” protests. Websites including Reddit, Etsy and Kickstarter used their platforms to call for the net neutrality rules to remain in place, and supporters of net neutrality were encouraged to contact their members of Congress and urge them to oppose the rollback.
Protesters also appeared outside the FCC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., before and during the vote.
Though much of the opposition to the FCC’s repeal came from Democrats, they were joined by some Republicans who said they support the principles of net neutrality.
A spokesperson for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told the Bangor Daily News last month Collins didn’t support the Pai's proposal. Collins and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked Pai on Thursday to cancel the vote.
But more than 100 Republicans, led by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., and subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., offered Pai some last-minute support. The GOP lawmakers sent the FCC commissioner a letter Wednesday endorsing his repeal of the Internet rules. The Republicans also said the FCC's action Thursday "set the stage" for Congress "to determine how best to enact permanent protections for the bipartisan net neutrality principles on which we all agree."
"This proposal is a major step forward in the effort to clear the way for the substantial investment necessary to advance our Internet architecture for the next generation and close the digital divide," they wrote. "When its effects are fully realized, more Americans than ever will experience the benefits of telemedicine, distance learning, streaming video, and future innovations made possible by broadband.”