A Primer On The Future Of Net Neutrality Under Trump

Apr 29, 2017
Originally published on April 29, 2017 9:34 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration have been focusing a lot of effort on repealing Obama-era regulations, including many that govern technology and the Internet. This week, the Federal Communications Commission started moving toward a repeal of what's called the net neutrality rules. Now, these are regulations for Internet service providers. NPR's tech reporter Alina Selyukh is here to try to walk us through the plan. Alina, thanks so much for being with us.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hi, thanks for having me.

SIMON: Books have been written about net neutrality. Why don't you take 30 seconds and tell us what it is?

SELYUKH: This has become a great skill of mine. In fact, yesterday, I explained net neutrality to a friend in a text message, which I think was my peak net neutrality explainer.

SIMON: Oh, do do share share.

SELYUKH: (Laughter) So let me go through it.

SIMON: Yeah.

SELYUKH: There are two parts to this. There's the principles of net neutrality, and this is sort of this concept that Internet service providers should treat all website and apps fairly and equally. And that means they should not be blocking or slowing down any traffic, and they should not be charging companies a little extra to send their traffic a little faster. And this did come at a time when there were some incidents and accusations of Internet service providers actually meddling with access and speeds of some traffic in some instances. They were blocking access to some services. But policy-wise, for the past several years, what regulators have really been debating is not specifically these principles themselves but the legal mechanism of how to enforce them.

SIMON: Yeah. And how do you enforce them? Technically, how do you enforce it?

SELYUKH: 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. And here's how he saw that vote.

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AJIT PAI: It decided to put the federal government at the center of the Internet. Why? Unfortunately, the answer has nothing to do with the law or the facts. Nothing about the Internet was broken in 2015.

SELYUKH: And so now that he's in charge of the Republican majority at the agency, he's rolling back those policies.

SIMON: Do we have the details of the new approach being considered by the FCC?

SELYUKH: One thing we know for sure is what the new FCC does not want and that is public utility-style regulation of Internet providers. Here's how Pai described his plan in a speech on Wednesday.

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PAI: Going forward, we cannot stick with regulations from the Great Depression that were meant to micromanage Ma Bell.

SELYUKH: He has said that he supports the open Internet, which is another term for net neutrality - if we needed one more.

SIMON: I actually prefer that one.

SELYUKH: And so he supports this principle as far as he said, but it is really unclear how exactly he wants to regulate it. We know that he doesn't want utility-style regulations. We know that he is considering shifting some of the responsibility for policing it to the Federal Trade Commission. But all of this will play out over the next three to four to five months of this year.

SIMON: Who wants it? Who thinks its a bad idea?

SELYUKH: The cable and telecom companies, like Comcast and AT&T, have really pushed hard against this utility-style regulation that was adopted in 2015. They were the ones who took FCC to court over it. So they are really excited to see what Pai comes up with. The advocates and some of the web companies, like Vimeo and Etsy, are really gearing up for a fight. They're saying that they want the net neutrality principles and the regulations as they are right now.

SIMON: NPR's Alina Selyukh, thanks very much for being with us.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.