The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act would reclassify telecoms operators and make them subject to stricter net neutrality rules

Net neutrality – the concept that internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all data indiscriminately, without throttling or limiting access to sites – has been a contentious topic in the US for over two decades now. 

In the early 2000s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted the position that ISPs were Title I information services, a designation that put them under less regulatory control from the FCC than Title II common carrier services. 

By 2010, the concept of net neutrality was gradually becoming more developed, and the FCC was becoming increasingly frustrated with their lack of regulatory power over ISPs, having been ruled against in two notable court cases against Comcast and Verizon, respectively. 

As a result, momentum grew to reclassify the ISPs as Title II entities and produce codified net neutrality rules, with President Barack Obama throwing his weight behind the idea in 2014. A year later, the FCC made the requisite changes, and net neutrality principles were officially implemented. 

This did not last long, however. 

Under the Donald Trump administration and FCC chairman Ajit Pai, net neutrality was repealed in 2017, with ISPs reclassified once again as Title I companies.

This decision was largely influenced by a public consultation held by the FCC, which received a mammoth 22 million comments. Last year, however, it was revealed that 18 million of these comments were actually fraudulent, with 40% coming as a result of a campaign funded by Broadband for America, a non-profit organisation comprising senior telecoms industry executives.

Now, in 2022, net neutrality is once again up for debate, with a new bill, the Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act, being introduced to reverse the ISP classification once again and reimplement net neutrality laws.

“The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act reflects the undeniable fact that today, broadband is not a luxury. It is essential. That means the potential harms that internet users face without strong net neutrality protections and without the FCC able to exercise its proper authority are more sweeping than ever,” said Senators Edward Markey, one of the bill’s architects. 

“My legislation would reverse the damaging approach adopted by the Trump FCC, which left broadband access unregulated and consumers unprotected. It would give the FCC the tools it needs to protect the free and open internet, creating a just broadband future for everyone in our country. I thank my partners for their support for this critical legislation.”

Being a long-time supporter of net neutrality, FCC chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel has voiced her approval for the bill, though notes that the FCC should be able to make these decisions without having to go through Congress; this seems unlikely right now, however, with the FCC in something of a deadlock due to the stalled nomination of Gigi Sohn.

“Everyone should be able to go where they want and do what they want online without their broadband provider making choices for them,” she said. “I support Net Neutrality because it fosters this openness and accountability. While I trust the FCC has the authority it needs to adopt Net Neutrality rules, legislation that helps ensure it is the law of the land is welcome.”

The bill is also supported by a broad range of organisations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

The ISPs themselves, however, have been quick to disparage the bill, saying that they already voluntarily adhere to net neutrality principles and that additional regulatory pressure risks slowing network rollouts.

“In the wake of the once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure bill, we need to be focused collectively on closing the digital divide and not taking a ride on the net neutrality carousel for the umpteenth time for no discernible reason,” said Michael Powell, CEO of the NCTA – The Internet and Television Association.

How would the reintroduction of net neutrality impact the US telecoms industry? Find out from the experts in discussion at the upcoming Connected America conference 

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