Tech gears up for showdown over net neutrality

Tech gears up for showdown over net neutrality
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The tech world is gearing up for a showdown over the Obama-era net neutrality rules.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai last week floated his plan to roll back the rules in a meeting with broadband industry lobbyists. A tech industry source told The Hill Pai could unveil his plans as soon as May.

Republicans have long blasted the rules, which require internet service providers to treat all web traffic the same. Critic singled out the FCC's decision to treat internet providers like public utilities, opening those companies to further regulation in the future.

Pai's plan could scrap that provision in exchange for companies voluntarily promising to uphold net neutrality principles.

But consumer groups and Democrats are fighting to save the rules, which they say prevent companies from playing favorites with websites and online content.

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“Chairman Pai’s proposal would put the future of an open and free internet in the hands of big corporations and the powerful few at the expense of consumers,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyTrump's steps on Iran show cooperation with Congress is possible FCC votes to advance net neutrality repeal Senate Dems appeal to 'everyone who uses the internet' on net neutrality roll back MORE (D-Mass.) said last week.

The rules have divided tech, with broadband providers like Comcast and AT&T opposed. On the other side are web companies like Amazon, Netflix and Twitter that backed net neutrality when the FCC approved the rules.

Earlier this week, the Internet Association, which represents companies including Google and Facebook, met with Pai and insisted the rules "be enforced and kept intact."

“The internet industry is uniform in its belief that net neutrality preserves the consumer experience, competition, and innovation online,” the group wrote.

Net neutrality is the cornerstone of former President Obama's tech legacy and was enacted after a long fight. Millions filed public comments to the FCC in support of the rules in 2014 and 2015, when the agency began considering the regulations. After they were enacted, the rules survived multiple court challenges from business groups.

Pai, as an FCC commissioner, called the rules a "mistake" and described them as a misguided effort to put "last-century, utility-style regulation" on "today’s broadband networks." With President Trump in office, the Republican chairman is now poised to roll them back.

Pai and Republicans have already begun chipping away at net neutrality. Trump earlier this month signed a repeal of FCC internet privacy rules stemming from net neutrality, and Pai has scrapped a probe into mobile data plans that critics said violated the rules.

GOP lawmakers are letting Pai take the lead, but it's still unclear how far he'll go.

Many believe he'll focus on killing the so-called Title II provision that established the FCC's authority to regulate broadband providers like utilities.

“I favor a free and open Internet and I oppose Title II,” Pai said in January.

Both sides expect a public fight.

“I am going to be a part of that effort to make sure that this is a huge national debate,” Markey told The Hill Friday.

“There is going to be a national outcry when the Federal Communications Commission announces a plan to eliminate net neutrality as America’s communications policy. I think that they’re going to have a response unlike anything they’ve ever seen.”

The repeal of the internet privacy rules sparked a backlash, and net neutrality supporters say they plan to mobilize the public.

"People are increasingly engaged on consumer issues on the internet, and the coalition that was in favor of net neutrality is now reenergized,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told The Hill last week.

Consumer advocacy groups are also rallying supporters and say they have momentum to preserve the rules.

“That outcry [on broadband privacy] came clearly from across the political spectrum," said Evan Greer of Fight For The Future, a pro-net neutrality group. "We saw people on the Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRussian bank owners sue BuzzFeed over publishing dossier Why global health investments are key ‘Making America Great’ Major golf tournament opens at Trump National Golf Club in Va. MORE subreddit saying that this goes against our values, that ‘this isn’t what I voted for.' ... You see people on the left saying the same thing.”

“Last time round we had to start by educating people — the majority of whom didn't know what net neutrality was — now we already have millions of people who have taken action and helped win the rules we have now,” Greer explained.

She promised a "massive" effort to engage the public.

The groups are already at work. Fight For The Future is calling on activists to show up at lawmakers' town hall meetings this week to advocate for net neutrality. The group is also circulating a petition to lawmakers in support of the rules.

But those fighting to preserve net neutrality face an uphill battle.

Some Democratic lawmakers are pushing for a legislative fix that would preserve much of the rules, but that's unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled Congress.

Net neutrality supporters also privately worry that tech companies that helped enact the rules might be wary of jumping into a new fight pitting them against a GOP-controlled Congress and Republican FCC chief.

While the Internet Association has pushed to preserve the rules, many of its most prominent members, such as Google and Facebook, have said little recently about the fight.

Netflix, once a strong proponent of net neutrality, has suggested it could live with changes.

“The expectations of consumers are very strong,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in March. “So even if the formal framework gets weakened we don’t see a big risk."

On the other side, opponents of net neutrality are pushing to ensure Pai stays the course and scales back the rules. Cable and wireless companies challenged the rules in court and are expected to press hard for repeal.

Telecom industry trade groups met with Pai earlier this month, according to Reuters, to make their case.

After years of fighting the rules, net neutrality opponents believe victory is close at hand. They note that even public pressure over the internet privacy rules wasn't enough to prevent repeal.

The stakes are high for both sides.

“Last time we had a concerted effort on this is when we were organizing people to file comments during the 2014–2015 proceeding on net neutrality,” said Timothy Karr of the consumer group Free Press. “At the end of the process there were more than 4 million comments."

"We maintain a lot of those relationships via email with those activists. We will be engaging them in a number of ways as the threat emerges,” he vowed.