WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on repealing the net neutrality rule, with the commission’s three Republican members likely to vote for the change over the two Democrats.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed Nov. 21 to scrap the rule, which has only been in place for two years. The previous commission — then controlled by Democrats under former President Barack Obama — approved the policy of net neutrality, which is aimed at ensuring equal internet access by banning companies from controlling internet traffic.
“On a party-line vote, it imposed heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the Internet. That decision was a mistake,” Pai said of the past commission. “It’s depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation.”
Congress does not have a role in Thursday’s decision.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is among those in favor of the FCC’s expected move, saying dropping net neutrality will result in fewer regulations and increased online development.
“I want to make sure what’s occurred over the last 20 years, which has been great innovation and investment, is allowed to go forward,” she said in a phone call Tuesday.
Capito discussed her relationship with Pai, including a visit the two made to Moorefield and Capon Springs in July. The trip, according to Capito, was centered on understanding how to improve internet access and in turn economic development.
“I have a good relationship (with Pai),” she said. “I’m in favor of what Chairman Pai is doing, which is rewriting the regulations to make sure that we can have flourishing and innovative internet like we’ve had over the last 20 years.”
Capito said the 2015 decision caused a decline of investments in broadband services. Press secretary Kelley Moore pointed to an article posted on the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation website, in which economist Hal Singer said broadband investment declined 5.6 percent following the net neutrality decision. Advocacy group Free Press, however, reported investment rose by 5.3 percent in 2015 and 2016.
“We want to make sure that we have fair, open, reasonable and innovative internet that I think spurs more investment from different providers,” Capito said.
Capito and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voted in October to confirm Pai as FCC chairman, which was approved in a 52-41 vote.
When asked if Manchin supported the repeal of net neutrality, spokesperson Jonathan Kott said the senior senator is concerned about the decision and the impact on keeping the internet open.
“He hopes that this controversial decision will bring his colleagues to the negotiating table so that Congress – not unelected bureaucrats – can resolve this issue once and for all with a responsible, balanced, bipartisan solution,” he said.
Kott added Manchin’s confirmation vote was in support of Pai’s efforts to increase broadband internet access in rural areas, including the adoption of a $4.5 billion mobility fund.
“Senator Manchin hoped that Congress would be able to come to a bipartisan solution to address this issue instead of having an independent agency take action,” Kott said of net neutrality.
Elizabeth Cohen, assistant professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, said the repeal of net neutrality could open the door for internet companies to control the type of content people can access.
“It’s always been an underlying philosophy beneath our current use of the internet, but as people started to challenge net neutrality, that’s when there had to be more legal action to define it,” she said.
The net neutrality rule was implemented after online companies, such as Netflix, complained internet service providers were restricting access to protect their own products.
Cohen, along with other proponents of net neutrality, worry if the rule is scrapped, nothing will stop internet service providers from limiting access to websites and other products to protect their preferred services.
“If any other social network site wanted to come and offer some competition to Facebook, this is going to make it a lot harder for them to do it because Facebook is going to be the one that already has people paying for these services through these internet service providers,” she said. “It’s going to make it hard for somebody else to break through.”
She added the number of companies was limited in most communities prior to the implementation of net neutrality, with residents in urban areas having two or three options at most.
“You’re going to tell me that if the internet service providers get more power that’s going to somehow make them want to go into more places and make these investments? There is something missing from that argument,” she said.
Amid concerns of what repeal could mean, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Congress should pass legislative protections to assure websites and services are not blocked by internet companies.
“If my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and those who claim to support net neutrality rules want to enshrine protections for consumers with the backing of the law, I call on you today to join me in discussing legislation to do just that,” said Thune, who serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
“While we won’t agree on everything, I believe there is much room for compromise. So many of us in Congress already agree on many of the principles of net neutrality.”
Capito agreed with Thune, saying lawmakers should “provide the certainty” that internet companies cannot throttle websites.
“I hope that we can get a bipartisan group together to do that,” she noted.
The Federal Trade Commission would be responsible for monitoring internet service providers and protecting consumers under Pai’s proposal. A federal court is reviewing litigation between the FTC and AT&T Inc. about the handling of related complaints, in which a ruling against the FTC could limit its abilities to go after violators.