Net neutrality on a fast track to oblivion at FCC

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No doubt about intentions.

In his short time as Federal Communications Commission chairman, Ajit Pai hasn’t actually said he’s going to scrap the 2015 decision to classify broadband as a common carrier service, and with it the network neutrality rules that depend on it. But in comments he made last week and in the substance of his big news dump on Friday, it’s clear that he’s moving quickly in that direction.

Among the actions announced late Friday afternoon was the cancellation of investigations into the zero rating practices of AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and T-Mobile. The question was whether offering customers unlimited free data to watch video sold by the carriers while charging fees and enforcing data caps on outside content violates the core principle of network neutrality: that broadband providers can’t use their control – monopoly or otherwise – over Internet access to gain a competitive advantage over other content providers.

In a preliminary finding, released in the final days of the Obama administration, the FCC said yes it does, at least where AT&T and Verizon are concerned. At the time, Pai blasted the report and said change was on the way. And so it was.

Pai also shredded draft decisions that would have regulated wholesale broadband rates and cable companies’ set top box practices, and revived an effort to exempt small and medium sized ISPs from transparency requirements. Like the zero rating investigation, all of those depend on broadband being classified as a common carrier service.

When that decision was made two years ago, then-chair Tom Wheeler labeled it the “Open Internet Order”. No longer. Pai, who speaks carefully, if often verbosely, now calls it the “Title II Order” and FCC staff are following suit. That characterisation is correct. Title II, which is FCC jargon for common carrier regulations, is at the heart of the decision and net neutrality or an open Internet or transparency or wholesale rates are issues that follow from it.

Words matter, particularly in government. Eliminate the common carrier classification and everything else disappears too.