The Federal Communications Commission chairman announced plans Tuesday to repeal Obama-era regulations on Internet service providers. The 2015 rules enforce what's called net neutrality, meaning that the companies that connect you to the Internet don't get to decide which websites load faster or slower, or charge websites or apps to load faster.
In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says his plan to remove net neutrality rules is a way of bringing the Internet back to how it was in the 1990s.
"President Clinton got it right in 1996 when he established a free market-based approach to this new thing called the Internet, and the Internet economy we have is a result of his light-touch regulatory vision," Pai says. "We saw companies like Facebook and Amazon and Google become global powerhouses precisely because we had light-touch rules that apply to this Internet. And the Internet wasn't broken in 2015 when these heavy-handed regulations were adopted."
Pai's plan would require Internet service providers to disclose what they're doing, such as allowing some sites to load faster than others. Websites could pay ISPs to give them preferential treatment — a situation Pai argues would have benefits.
A health care startup could pay to prioritize the traffic of its patients who are being monitored remotely: "That could be perk," he says.
The chairman's proposal, called the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, would mark a shift in authority and emphasis. Instead of the FCC regulating how ISPs operate, the Federal Trade Commission would handle enforcement of net neutrality violations.
"The FCC would still require transparency: Any business practice that would affect the offering of a service has to be disclosed to the consumers, and entrepreneurs can understand exactly how these businesses are operated," Pai says.
"Secondly, the Federal Trade Commission has long had authority and had authority prior to 2015 for almost 20 years over this space," he says. "And the result was pretty clear. They took targeted action against the bad apples and they let everyone else thrive in a free market. And I think consumers and companies were better off as a result."
As NPR's Alina Selyukh explained earlier this year, the current rules arose from incidents of ISPs meddling with traffic speeds:
"In 2015, the Democrats of the FCC decided that it was time to go all in, and what they did was essentially reclassified Internet providers, and started treating them as utility-style companies. That means they put it in the strictest-ever regulations, really expanded their oversight over the industry. Republicans at the FCC at the time really opposed this regulatory approach, so-called public utility approach. And one of the dissenting commissioners was Ajit Pai, who is now the new FCC chairman under President Trump."
Many were critical of Pai's announcement and vowed to fight it.
"If the FCC votes to roll back these net neutrality protections, they would end the internet as we know it, harming every day users and small businesses, eroding free speech, competition, innovation and user choice in the process," said Mozilla, the nonprofit corporation that makes the Firefox browser and advocates for Internet accessibility. "Our position is clear: the end of net neutrality would only benefit Internet Service Providers."
"It is imperative that all internet traffic be treated equally, without discrimination against content or type of traffic — that's the how the internet was built and what has made it one of the greatest inventions of all time," the company added.
The ACLU also issued a statement opposing Pai's plan.
"In a world without net neutrality, activists may lose an essential platform to organize and fight for change, and small organizations may never get a fair shot to grow and thrive," said Ronald Newman, ACLU director of strategic initiatives. "Congress must stop Chairman Pai's plan in its tracks and ensure that net neutrality remains the law of the land."
Editor's Note: NPR's legal counsel has filed comments with the FCC on behalf of the public radio system, opposing the repeal of the 2015 net neutrality rules. You can read them here.