Tech Companies Press FCC To Restore Obama-Era Net Neutrality Rules

Net neutrality rules are needed to ensure the internet will function as “a free and open medium that promotes innovation and spurs economic growth,” Mozilla, Vimeo and other tech companies told the Federal Communications Commission Friday.

“Net neutrality simply preserves the environment that has allowed the internet to become an engine for economic growth,” the companies said in a letter to FCC Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel. “In an environment where users frequently lack meaningful choices between ISPs, net neutrality can ultimately encourage greater long-term investment across the network stack by promoting broadband buildout, faster service, and new applications.”

Other signatories include Reddit, Dropbox, Eventbrite and Wikimedia. They are urging the agency to reinstate the Obama-era net-neutrality regulations, which classified broadband as a utility service and prohibited internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic, and from charging higher fees for prioritized delivery.

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In 2017, the Republican-led FCC voted to revoke those prohibitions, and to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service -- effectively stripping the agency of authority to police carriers' broadband policies.

Former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who shepherded the repeal, called the former rules “heavy handed,” and claimed they depressed investment.

But net neutrality advocates say rules are necessary to prevent broadband providers from limiting consumers' ability to access streaming video, search engines and other online services and content.

Rosenworcel opposed that repeal, and has repeatedly urged the FCC to return to the Obama-era approach.

"As a result of today's misguided action, our broadband providers will get extraordinary new powers," she said in 2017, when the agency voted to rescind the prior rules. "They will have the power to block websites, the power to throttle ... and the power to censor online content."

President Joe Biden ran on a platform that includes restoring net neutrality. But the FCC, which currently has two Democrats and two Republicans, likely won't consider the issue until Biden nominates a fifth member.

Mozilla and the other tech companies say in their letter that the internet economy “was built upon basic principles of net neutrality.”

“These protections allow for ideas to spread without interference from ISPs; allowing anyone, anywhere to share ideas and freely communicate on an equal footing,” the companies write.

Michael Cheah, Vimeo's general counsel, says the company hopes the 2015 regulations will serve as a baseline for new rules, but would also like the FCC to consider more directly regulating zero-rating practices, which involve carriers exempting some material from customers' data caps.

“We'd be pretty satisfied if we got the 2015 rules,” he says. “We would endorse a rule that roped in zero-rating.”

Net neutrality advocates have often argued that broadband providers shouldn't deploy zero-rating initiatives in ways that give customers an incentive to stream video from affiliated companies, at the expense of competing online-only services like Netflix or Amazon Prime.

The 2015 regulations didn't explicitly prohibit zero-rating practices, but the former rules included a so-called “general conduct” standard that barred carriers from hindering the ability of consumers and content companies to reach each other online. The Obama-era FCC interpreted that standard as barring carriers from zero-rating their own content.

Even though the FCC didn't formally categorize broadband a utility service until 2015, the agency had long endorsed some net neutrality principles -- including prohibitions on blocking or throttling traffic based on content.

But courts said the agency lacked authority to enforce those principles, or to enshrine them in regulations, unless it classified broadband as a utility service. For instance, in 2008 the FCC attempted to sanction Comcast for slowing peer-to-peer traffic. But the D.C. Circuit Court said the FCC lacked authority for the move because broadband wasn't then considered a utility.

The tech companies aren't alone in advocating for open internet rules. Earlier this month, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) said he plans to introduce legislation that would restore net neutrality nationwide.

After the FCC voted to repeal the national rules, California, Vermont and other states passed their own broadband regulations.

Lobbying groups challenged the laws in California and Vermont. Last month, a federal judge in California rejected the broadband industry's request to enjoin enforcement of that state's net neutrality laws. The broadband groups recently appealed that decision to the 9th Circuit.

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