Net Neutrality Necessary For Public Safety, Groups Tell FCC

The Federal Communications Commission should restore the Obama-era net neutrality rules in order to protect public safety, officials in Santa Clara, California urge in a new petition.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic pushes ever more public safety officials, and many other workers, to work from home ... the public-safety risks posed by the Commission’s refusal to require ISPs to carry Internet traffic on nondiscriminatory terms pile up,” Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District write in papers filed with the FCC on Monday.

Advocacy groups including Public Knowledge, Common Cause and Free Press also filed petitions urging the FCC to reinstate the Obama-era regulations.

Those rules, passed in 2015, prohibited internet service providers from blocking and throttling traffic, or charging higher fees for prioritized delivery.

Net neutrality advocates say the Obama-era rules are necessary to prevent broadband providers from engaging in censorship, and from harming competitors. But former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argued the former regulations were too "heavy handed," and depressed investment.

In 2017, the Republican-led FCC voted to repeal those rules, and essentially replace them with a regulation requiring providers to transparently describe their practices to consumers.

At the time, Pai said broadband carriers' practices could be policed by the Federal Trade Commission -- which can sanction companies that misrepresent their policies, and can also enforce antitrust laws.

A federal appellate court largely upheld the repeal, but directed the FCC to consider the impact of the revocation on three issues -- public safety, the Lifeline program (which subsidizes broadband) and regulations regarding utility poles.

Last year, the FCC voted 3-2 to affirm the repeal.

Santa Clara County officials now say the FCC should reconsider, arguing that last year's vote failed to consider how the lack of net neutrality rules would affect public safety.

In an emergency, “harms caused by blocking and throttling are irreparable,” the county writes.

“In the public safety context ... there can be no doubt that after-the-fact enforcement via antitrust and consumer-protection laws will not protect the public,” the county writes.

Santa Clara officials note in their petition that a small internet service provider in northern Idaho and parts of Washington state recently announced plans to block Twitter and Facebook, in response to those companies' decisions to suspend former President Trump from their platforms.

The carrier later retreated and said it would only prevent access to Twitter and Facebook if customers affirmatively opted in to the block.

Still, the incident illustrates the potential consequences of the net neutrality rollback, according to Santa Clara officials.

“While news reports of the ISP’s decision to block Facebook and Twitter have focused on the political ramifications, public safety also hangs in the balance, because ... social media platforms are now a critical component of local governments’ effective and efficient emergency response,” the county argues. “Moreover, if an ISP is willing to block major edge providers like Facebook and Twitter for political reasons, it may well also decide to block communications from local governments themselves.”

President Biden ran on a platform that included restoring net neutrality, and acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has repeatedly voted in favor of the Obama-era rules.

But the FCC currently only has four members -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- and is unlikely to move forward until a fifth commissioner joins.

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