Following Joe Biden’s election as president, many hoped we would see a quick return to the era of enforceable net neutrality. However, that can only happen once there are changes at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the White House is just now beginning that process. Biden has nominated acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel to formally take over that role. He also nominated activist Gigi Sohn to fill the open seat. Once confirmed, the new commissioner will give the FCC what it needs to tackle net neutrality again.
The tumult at the FCC stretches back to the Obama presidency. Chairman Wheeler eventually got behind full net neutrality after initially expressing an interest in setting up internet “fast lanes.” The eventual rules prevented favoring traffic, although there were healthy carve-outs for network management. That wasn’t good enough for Ajit Pai, who became Chairman under President Trump. Pai repealed the net neutrality rules, prompting possibly the first bomb threat at a meeting of the FCC.
Pai didn’t stick around after Biden’s election, even though he had time left in his term. However, even with Rosenworcel in the big chair on a provisional basis, the commission was still deadlocked. With two Democratic votes and two Republican votes, it has been impossible to advance Biden’s telecom agenda.
In order to make progress, the Senate needs to confirm both nominations by the end of the year. At that point, the FCC can act on net neutrality and a raft of other changes. Sohn has even expressed interest in clamping down on ISPs more aggressively with net neutrality rules. If the Senate does take up the nominations soon, you’re going to start hearing more back-and-forth about the tenets of net neutrality. If things follow the usual pattern, Democrats will warn against the possible excesses of ISPs, and Republicans will claim this is the government trying to stifle innovation. Sunrise, sunset.
Regardless of whether net neutrality returns this year or next, it probably won’t herald any major changes. The constant back-and-forth of regulation has resulted in great uncertainty for ISPs that want to develop profitable non-neutral services. Congress could crystalize the country’s internet regulations through legislation, but Democrats probably don’t have to votes to pass anything that Biden would sign at this time, so we might be in for more FCC drama in the coming years.
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