What Happens Next With Net Neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission voted 2-1 on Thursday to begin the process of revoking its 2015 net neutrality rules. Under the proposal, the agency would eliminate the legal underpinnings of the rules, which prohibit Internet service providers like Comcast (CMCSA) and Verizon (VZ) from blocking, slowing or otherwise discriminating against web sites like Google’s (GOOGL) YoutTube and online services like Netflix (NFLX). Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan would also eliminate the ability of the FCC to investigate ISPs general conduct in the area but did not specify how, or even whether, the agency should continue to enforce the main principles against blocking and slowing content.

What changes immediately with the vote?

Thursday’s move was just to issue a proposal for public comment, a initial stage required in FCC rule making. So as of Thursday, the agency’s 2015 rules still apply and small web sites, new Internet services, and other innovators remain protected. On the other hand, ISPs say they are constrained by the 2015 rules from investing in their networks and offering innovative services of their own.

What happens next?

The formal adoption of the proposal is an invitation for all sides to keep sending in comments. The FCC has already received over 1 million comments since Pai issued a draft of the proposal last month (although many seem to have been phony as part of an anti-net neutrality spam campaign). Last time around, the agency got over 4 million comments. The agency will take comments for 90 days and then typically takes another three to six months to move ahead with a final rule.

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Pai shouldn’t have much trouble getting a final rule adopted within the commission, as he and the other Republican member, Michael O’Rielly, currently form a majority over the sole remaining Democratic commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, who was the sole vote against Thursday’s proposal. Two seats are currently empty. That vote would legally change the playing field for ISPs and online companies.

Will the FCC’s final rule end the debate?

Not likely. The first thing that will happen after a final rule is approved, as happened with all the agency’s previous net neutrality efforts, is one or both sides will head to the Appeals Court for the District of Columbia to file a lawsuit to block the change. That could take months, or even years to play out. Some lawmakers would like Congress to step in and end the back and forth at the FCC. But that’s not likely anytime soon, as Congressional Republicans were hit with a firestorm of criticism when they unilaterally rolled back Internet privacy rules in April and there is no consensus about just how to craft the appropriate balance to protect net neutrality.

Could this become a campaign issue in 2018?

That’s certainly what net neutrality proponents hope. Groups that back the 2015 rules have said they plan to campaign against representatives who don’t help reinstate the rules. They’ve already run billboards against some lawmakers who voted for the privacy rollback. But it’s not clear yet whether many voters are savvy enough, or motivated enough, to cast a ballot on net neutrality as a critical issue.

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