WASHINGTON — A Trump administration decision to roll back a 2015 Obama–era regulation has spurred a heated debate over how much power Internet providers should have over the service they supply to the vast majority of Americans.
The debate is over something commonly called “net neutrality,” wonky Washington words that come down to this: The 2015 rules attempted to bar internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon from playing God over people’s Internet use. The rules banned, for example, internet providers from blocking some websites or dramatically slowing the transmission of others.
Last December, the Donald Trump administration — under new Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai — reversed those rules, arguing that they were never necessary in the first place. “The Internet wasn’t broken in 2015,” Pai said. “We weren’t living in a digital dystopia.”
Now, the fight has moved to Congress, with the Senate earlier this month voting to block the Trump reversal and go back to the 2015 rules.
The rollback is set to go into effect June 11, but Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, said he’s seen no hint that the House will act.
“This is Trump’s FCC,” he said. “Nobody in the House wants to cross the president on any issue, so I think it’s an issue that we’re going to have to take care of if we get the House back next year.”
The limbo has everyone from Netflix to the Columbus Metropolitan Library concerned.
Their fear is that without the 2015 regulations, internet service providers will feel free to give preferential treatment to some parts of the internet over others. Among their concerns: That internet service providers will put data from their companies in “fast lanes” while blocking or “throttling” — slowing down — data and content from competitors. Some fear that such providers could charge extra to customers to access certain sites, or stifle data from competing companies.
“If you’re paying for an internet connection, you’re not paying for part of the Internet,” said Scott Haber, a spokesman for the Internet Association, which opposes the rollback of the 2015 rules. “You’re paying for access all across the Internet with the same speed.”
“All of us experience frustration when the Internet is slow,” said Patrick Losinski, the CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. “Imagine if that was a constant state of mind.”
Losinski says that rolling back the regulations could slow the speed with which the 1.7 million who reserved computers at the library system last year can search for jobs, work on school projects and update resumes.
Ryan predicts the impact will be “like the frog in the boiling water.”
“You’re not probably going to see anything immediately, but over time the average person, the small business, the startup, the entrepreneur is going to get crowded out of access to the Internet,” he said. “The big companies are going to be able to start making money and charging for more access.”
Others argue that the panic is overblown.
Nicol Turner–Lee, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank, said the free market would not permit internet service providers to throttle or block content; consumers would flee any company that tried to do so.
And despite the FCC rule repeal, she said, there is still authority within that agency to deal with internet providers who block or slow certain websites.
“The Internet is not going to break as a result of this,” she said.
She said the bigger issue with the 2015 rules is that they attempted to put the Internet under 1930s-era rules used to guide landline telecommunications.
The same regulatory authority that allowed the FCC to regulate telegraphs and rotary phones, she said, is now being used to regulate data transmitted over the Internet, video calls and photos.
“It’s a different medium,” she said, adding that it’s Congress’ responsibility to craft laws governing the Internet.
But Congress seems in no hurry to do so. While lawmakers such as Ryan and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, have signed a petition that would force the House to vote on a measure returning to the 2015 regulations, others, including Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, prefer that Congress passes its own bill to address the issue.
Stivers said he’s concerned that unless Congress acts, each new presidential administration will ping-pong back and forth between new and conflicting regulations about the Internet, leaving consumers with little certainty.
The bill he has cosponsored would protect consumers from blocking and throttling, but would not outlaw the concept of paid prioritization, which allows companies to give quicker access to content for which consumers are willing to pay.
Sen. Rob Portman, similarly, also supports the concept of changing the law altogether, rather than handling net neutrality through the regulatory process. He voted against the undoing the Trump’s 2017 decision, saying the Barack Obama administration should never have tried to address the issue; it was always Congress’ responsibility.
“I think we ought to have a legislative solution that takes many of the same principles — blocking, throttling, pay prioritization — and puts it into legislation,” the Ohio Republican said.
But Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who voted to return to the 2015 rules, argues the House should simply follow the Senate's lead.
“That’s how we started it,” he said. “We’ve already done that in the Senate and we should move on it.”