American voters don’t get a direct choice in who runs theFederal Communications Commission, but the FCC exercises an outsized influence over the gadgets and services they use. The regulations it writes and enforces—and the telecom mergers it blesses or tries to block—open and close vast possibilities for the companies that connect us.
The FCC will take a different course once President-elect Trump names commissioners to replace the current majority of Democratic appointees, led by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Their likely first step: clicking the “Undo” button on Obama’s key tech-policy initiatives.
Thenet neutrality rules the FCC enacted last year, which bar internet providers from blocking or slowing sites, services and apps or charging them for better delivery, have become the tech-policy equivalent of the Affordable Care Act—an Enemy No. 1 for conservatives. The net-neutrality regulations may havesurvived a court challenge, but their odds of surviving much longer are about to get worse.
Will Rinehart, director of technology and innovation policy at the Washington-based, free-market-minded American Action Forum, concurred, saying the net-neutrality rules “will likely be on the chopping block.”
But these rules might not entirely vanish.
Berin Szóka, president of the libertarian-minded groupTechFreedom, suggested that a Trump FCC could revert to themuch weaker regulations adopted in 2010, which banned wireline providers from blocking sites but allowed wireless providers to block apps if they didn’t compete with their own services.
Or the commission could operate on a case-by-case basis, taking action if it sees evidence of uncompetitive behavior.
The FCC may also take the path of least resistance. “It’s much easier — and less likely to embolden activists — to simply not enforce the rules that exist,” e-mailed Karl Bode, founder ofDSL Reports, a site that’s chronicled the broadband business since it consisted of phone-based digital-subscriber-line service.
Harold Feld, vice president at the digital-rights groupPublic Knowledge, identified one reason to keep some net-neutrality protections: “The broadband industry itself has adjusted by buying content and developing advertising they plan to deliver on each other’s networks.” So, for instance, AT&T will sell itsDirecTV Now video service to Comcast and Verizon subscribers.
“It looks like the new administration may not have any interest in the munis and co-ops for internet access,” e-mailed Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at the nonprofitInstitute for Local Self-Reliance.
Two members of the team associated with tech policy, American Enterprise Institute scholarJeffrey Eisenach andRep. Marsha Blackburn (R.-Tenn.), “have a long history of opposing pro-consumer telecom policy at the behest of large providers,” Bode said.
SOPA was a 2011 bill meant to block copyright infringement bytampering with core internet protocols. It would have let copyright holders force internet providers to make entire domains unreachable without first having to prove anything in court. It also would have criminalized attempts to work around those blocks.
“This is my third transition to a situation where the same party holds the White House and both chambers of of Congress,” Feld said. “My experience is that things rarely go as planned, and that efforts to make major changes in the status quo quickly run into resistance.”
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