Microsoft Corp. and Google pleaded with U.S. regulators on Monday to preserve strong net neutrality rules, while AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. backed weakened oversight and said Congress should settle the issue that’s burned for more than a decade. The tech pillars and the broadband providers are trying to sway the Federal Communications Commission, which is moving toward gutting rules against interfering with web traffic. Monday was a deadline for comments on the FCC proposal advanced by Republican Chairman Ajit Pai entitled “Restoring Internet Freedom,” which already has attracted more than 8 million comments.
The rules passed by an Obama-era, Democratic-led FCC forbid broadband providers from blocking or slowing data — to hinder rivals, for instance, or to favor affiliated services — and from setting up “fast lanes” that would cost more. Under Pai’s proposal announced in April, the FCC would end its claim to strong legal authority to enforce the rules, and the chairman asked whether the FCC should retain the ban on paid fast lanes.
For broadband providers, the change would remove a threat of intrusive rate regulation as FCC authority is cut back. If Congress passed a law, that would insulate net neutrality rules from changing as partisan control of the FCC switches following elections.
Web-based companies see peril in relaxing rules that they say protect consumers’ ability “to enjoy the unfettered ability to access the lawful content of their choice,” the Internet Association, a Washington-based trade group with members including Microsoft, Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. said in a filing Monday. Undoing the rules “would introduce significant uncertainty and would threaten the virtuous circle of innovation” that’s seen broadband services boom.
Internet service providers see the issue differently, and argue that the embattled rules have deterred broadband investment. Rules should return to the lighter-touch framework that existed before the current rules were set in 2015 “in order for the U.S. to retain its leading role in shaping and benefiting from the internet,” USTelecom, a trade group with members including AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc., said in a summary of its comments Monday to the FCC. “A lasting congressional solution is needed, but, in the interim, the commission must undo the harm.”
The current FCC rules include “the framework for price regulation – a toxic approach if the goal is to encourage investment,” Verizon said. Reverting to a “longstanding, light-touch” approach “will not leave consumers unprotected.” At top cable provider Comcast, “we support the FCC’s return to a light-touch regulatory framework,” David Cohen, senior executive vice president, said in a blog post outlining the company’s FCC filing. “We are, and will remain, committed to the core tenets of a free and open Internet.”
‘Regulatory Ping Pong’
Cohen called for Congress to act to spare consumers a “never-ending game of regulatory ping pong” as rules change with presidential administrations. Prospects appear “dim” for a solution from Congress, Matthew Schettenhelm, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst, said in a July 13 note. Republicans likely will seek limits on FCC power, which Democrats will resist in order to preserve the agency’s flexibility to address future problems, Schettenhelm said.
Mark Wigfield, an FCC spokesman, declined to comment. Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, when asked if President Donald Trump believes net neutrality is important, replied that “the FCC is an independent agency” and said he hasn’t discussed the issue with the president.
Attorneys general of the District of Columbia and 12 states supported the existing rules in a filing Monday. If the rules were to be repealed, an internet service provider could force web content providers to pay fees for faster speeds, limiting consumers’ ability to access the internet content of their choice, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a news release.