Jul 14, 2021 - Technology

Net neutrality battle looms

Illustration of an arrow cursor being lassoed by a blue ethernet cable

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Biden administration is gearing up for a showdown with cable and telecom companies over plans to bring back Obama-era net neutrality rules.

Why it matters: The Trump administration took a hands-off approach to the telecom industry, but the White House is now reversing course with new plans to regulate the behavior of America's internet service providers.

Catch up quick: The Federal Communications Commission adopted net neutrality rules in 2015 that prohibited broadband providers from blocking websites, slowing web traffic or cutting deals with companies to speed traffic to consumers.

  • Under the Trump administration, the FCC repealed those rules, but versions have cropped up at the state level.

What's happening: President Biden's wide-ranging competition executive order that in part encouraged the FCC to reinstate the net neutrality rules was met with opposition from broadband industry groups.

  • "Net neutrality has become an expensive, time-wasting exercise that has little real world effect," Michael Powell, president of cable trade group NCTA, said in a statement. "The drama detracts from focusing on genuine broadband issues, most critically our collective effort to get broadband to communities that lack service."
  • "Of course, we can all suit up to play another game of ping pong, with yet another administration, but the inevitable years-long regulatory proceeding, exhaustive court challenges and likely trip to the U.S. Supreme Court some three or four years from now serves no one."
  • Industry leaders fear net neutrality rules will pave the way for the government to set broadband prices and have argued that the rules deter investment in the sector.

The other side: But the administration believes that net neutrality rules are good policy, and rather than hamper investment, push companies to focus on building out their networks because they block other avenues for revenue.

  • "The absence of net neutrality opens up the possibilities of making money in ways other than just building better infrastructure and charging more for it," Tim Wu, special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy, told Axios in an interview. "Because you can try and collect side payments of various kinds. It basically drives you towards a fee-driven model."
  • "There's a lot more revenue opportunities, so there's less reason to do [capital expenditure]."
  • Wu is widely credited as coiner of the term "net neutrality," which he outlined in a 2003 legal paper.

What's next: All eyes will be on the FCC to begin the lengthy process to reinstate the rules.

  • Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, a supporter of the rules who opposed the repeal, declined to say Tuesday if she intends to start a rulemaking to bring back the regulations.

Yes, but: Biden has yet to name a third Democrat to the commission (or a permanent leader), so the agency lacks the Democratic majority necessary to overcome likely Republican opposition.

  • "We recognize that it's something that we can discuss with the current crop of commissioners, but with a full dais, we may be able to have other options," Rosenworcel said.

The intrigue: Republicans have historically opposed net neutrality's limits on telecom-sector firms, but increasingly are calling for similar common carrier rules for other parts of the online ecosystem.

  • Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, said Google is so vital and ubiquitous it should be treated as a public utility for internet search, and regulated as such.
  • Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said Tuesday he would be in favor of imposing "anti-discrimination rules" on Big Tech platforms.
  • "We are not seeing discrimination taking place by ISPs," Carr said. "I think we do see significant discriminatory conduct at the layers of the stack of beyond ISPs — whether it's Twitter blocking the sharing of a URL, or Microsoft blocking search results for 'tank man.""
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