FCC’s net neutrality repeal sparks backlash

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) plan to scrap net neutrality rules governing how internet service providers handle web traffic has unleashed a wave of intense opposition.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, announced last month that the agency would vote to undo its 2015 net neutrality rules, which prevent companies like Verizon and Comcast from blocking or slowing down websites or creating internet “fast lanes.”

The plan was met with instant backlash from net neutrality supporters, who have been rallying to save the rules for the better part of a year.

As of Sunday afternoon, at least 750,000 people have called Congress since Pai announced his plan, according to . And activists are planning hundreds of demonstrations at Verizon stores — Pai was associate general counsel at the telecom giant from 2001 to 2003 — and congressional offices across the country next week in protest of the planned vote.

Evan Greer, the campaign director for the pro-net neutrality group Fight for the Future, said she was surprised by the outpouring of support for net neutrality in the days following Pai’s announcement just before Thanksgiving.

Pai’s rollback is expected to pass when the FCC votes on it this month. Still, Greer says it’s important to pressure Congress to intervene.

“The reality is that Congress provides a critical role in overseeing the FCC,” she said. “If they sit back and do nothing and allow the FCC to move forward with this vote, then the blood of the internet is on their hands as well, and they will be to blame for getting rid of these basic consumer protections.”

Pai, whose spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment, argues that the Obama-era rules have stifled broadband companies’ investments and are too heavy-handed.

In addition to removing the FCC’s restrictions on how broadband companies can handle web traffic, his plan would put the Federal Trade Commission, a consumer protection agency, in charge of policing internet providers.

Pai responded to the backlash by calling out celebrities who have criticized his plan and social media companies that he claims are a greater threat to internet speech than broadband providers.

“Many critics don’t seem to understand that we are moving from heavy-handed regulation to light-touch regulation, not a completely hands-off approach,” he said in a speech on Tuesday. “We aren’t giving anybody a free pass. We are simply shifting from one-size-fits-all pre-emptive regulation to targeted enforcement based on actual market failure or anticompetitive conduct.”

Pai’s arguments aren’t swaying net neutrality supporters, who see the rules as essential to maintaining the free flow of information online.

Matt Wood, the policy director at pro-net neutrality group Free Press, accused Pai of trying to deflect attention away from his policies and toward internet giants.

“We could have that conversation, but what these guys want to do is rip away the current protections and pretend they’ll come back with something stronger and that’s just never proven to be the case for them,” Wood said.

For their part, broadband industry advocates are trying to tamp down on what they see as overinflated concerns about the repeal, promising not to abuse their power as internet gatekeepers.

“AT&T intends to operate its network the same way AT&T operates its network today: in an open and transparent manner. We will not block websites, we will not throttle or degrade internet traffic based on content, and we will not unfairly discriminate in our treatment of internet traffic,” Bob Quinn, AT&T’s head of regulatory affairs, wrote in a this week.

ADVERTISEMENTPai and his backers have also seized on some extreme cases of the net neutrality backlash. The FCC chair has been the subject of racist attacks on social media, and an image recently circulated on Twitter that purported to show a sign near Pai’s home that mentions his children by name.

And on Thursday, the Justice Department announced that a New York man had been with threatening to kill Rep. (R-N.Y.) and his family if he doesn’t try to protect net neutrality. Activists have largely denounced the threats.

A recent showed that a slight majority, 52 percent, supports the current net neutrality rules, while just 18 percent oppose them and 29 percent didn’t know or had no opinion. The survey also found that the rules are supported by 55 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans.

But that support has yet to move the needle in Congress. Sen. (Maine) is the only Republican lawmaker to  of the net neutrality repeal.

Still, congressional Democrats are mounting a last-ditch effort to persuade the FCC to cancel the vote.

Rep. (Pa.), the ranking Democrat on a subcommittee that oversees the agency, is among his colleagues asking for signatures urging Pai not to hold the vote. An aide told The Hill that dozens of lawmakers have signed on and that they are in talks with a few Republicans.

More public interest groups are expected to ask the FCC to delay the vote ahead of its Dec. 14 meeting.

If Pai’s plan is passed as expected, Free Press and other groups have hinted at trying to overturn it with a lawsuit, but until then the pressure will likely increase for the FCC and Congress.

“People from across the political spectrum are coming out of the woodwork to engage in this issue, and the real question now is if Congress is listening,” Greer said.

This report was updated on Dec. 4 at 9:54 a.m.

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