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Net Neutrality Has Been Rolled Back — But It's Not Dead Yet

The Federal Communications Commission rollback of net neutrality went into effect today. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai championed the move, while commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel opposed it.
Chip Somodevilla
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The Federal Communications Commission rollback of net neutrality went into effect today. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai championed the move, while commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel opposed it.

The Obama-era federal regulations known as net neutrality are done – at least for now. Though whether anything will change depends on where you live, and what internet service providers choose to do with their newfound freedom.

The net neutrality rules were approved in 2015. Companies couldn't pay service providers like Verizon or AT&T extra to make their site or app load faster for internet users, and ISPs couldn't block or throttle content and data, as long as it was legal.

But Trump's pick to run the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, called those rules "heavy-handed" and vowed to end them. His order, touted as promoting investment and broadband deployment, loosens the FCC's regulation of ISPs, and instead gives the Federal Trade Commission jurisdiction to enforce violations. Pai says this system lets the FTC focus on "the bad apples" and allows other players "thrive in a free market."

The new order permitsISPs to throttle, block, or be paid to prioritize certain sites or content, as long as they disclose that they are doing so.

The Republican-majority FCC voted along party lines in December to repeal the regulations, which expired today.

"In the short term, I don't think consumers are going to see any change at all from the Internet experience they've come to cherish," Pai told The Washington Post on Friday. "And in the medium- to long-term, I think we're going to see more investment in high-speed networks, particularly in rural areas that are difficult to serve. ... We were hopeful that that type of the light regulatory approach we're taking will lead to ... better, faster, cheaper Internet access for consumers and more competition particularly."

The Senate voted 52-47 last month to overturn the FCC's plan, but the House never acted on the issue—making the Senate's move largely symbolic. As we reported last month, Democrats see net neutrality as motivating issue for voters.

Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat on the FCC, said in prepared remarks Saturday that the FCC had puts itself "on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public."

She worries that with the regulations now expired, some websites will be blocked or censored, and service could slow.

"That is not the open internet we know today and rely on to consume and create. So let's be honest: this is bad," she said. "Now for the good news. This misguided decision awoke a sleeping giant, because the American public is demanding action."

Across the country, state officials have moved to keep net neutrality rules in place on their turf. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, governors in six states — New Jersey, New York, Montana, Rhode Island, Vermont and Hawaii — have signed executive orders upholding net neutrality, and three – Washington, Vermont and Oregon — have enacted legislation that does so. In January, attorneys general in 22 states and the District of Columbia filed a protective petition for review of the order.

Organizations that fought to preserve net neutrality say the battle isn't over.

"The gutting of net neutrality is a symbol of our broken democracy," Fight for the Future Deputy Director Evan Greer said in a statement. "But it has sparked an unprecedented backlash from across the political spectrum, and Internet users are coming out of the woodwork to fight tooth and nail in Congress, in the courts, and at the local and state level. ... The Internet is coming for net neutrality."

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.