Loss of 'net neutrality' to spark court battle

Mary Altaffer - The Associated PressDemonstrators rally in support of net neutrality outside a Verizon store on Thursday, Dec. 7 in New York. The FCC is set to vote Dec. 14 whether to scrap Obama-era rules around open internet access that prevent phone and cable companies from favoring certain websites and apps.

BOSTON — An open internet creates a level digital playing field and makes up the "foundation of our tech economy" in Massachusetts, but rules that protect it face a "day of reckoning" on Thursday, Sen. Edward Markey said.

"There is no more important economic issue that we are going to be debating this year," Markey said Monday at a press conference in the downtown Boston offices of cybersecurity company Rapid7. "It goes right to the heart of the Massachusetts economy, and this fight is one that has to be fought."

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday plans to vote on an order reversing its Obama-era net neutrality rules, which deemed internet service a public utility and required internet providers to treat all traffic equally.

But views at the agency have changed since the issuance of the 2015 rules, and a current FCC fact sheet describes the rule as "heavy-handed, utility-style regulation" and says it created a "regulatory environment that stifles innovation" and has "delayed or scuttled" new services.

Local tech leaders and entrepreneurs who spoke at Monday's press conference, however, said net neutrality and the access it allows is key for the growth of businesses and ideas.

"While the internet is the great equalizer today, a future without net neutrality will make even starting a business, let alone growing it, cost prohibitive," said Mohamad Ali, the president and CEO of Carbonite. "It's a zero-sum game, and small and mid-sized firms have the most to lose."

Jody Rose, executive director of the New England Venture Capital Association, said that although companies are built on "the foundation of equal access to the internet," net neutrality is "more than just an economic issue."

"In an era where corporate influence on politics and society is increasing and increasingly concerning, there's more at stake than just dollars," she said. "Repeal of net neutrality regulations would not only allow telecoms to limit consumer choice for economic gain, but also allow them to pick and choose the content available -- essentially, information gerrymandering."

The proposal scheduled for a vote Thursday would do away with rules prohibiting internet service providers from blocking any website, slowing down websites and charging sites for quicker loading times, or an "internet fast lane," Markey said.

Ajit Pai, who Trump named FCC chairman in January, last month released his "Draft Order To Restore Internet Freedom And Eliminate Heavy-Handed Internet Regulations," and teed it up for the December meeting. He said then that the 2015 decision was a mistake and that his proposal would have the federal government "stop micromanaging the Internet."

"Instead, the FCC would simply require Internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that's best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate," Pai said.

Pai's proposal is expected to be approved on a 3-2 party line vote.

"The time has come to overturn the market disrupting net neutrality and common carrier regulations that sacrificed decades of precedent and the independence of the agency for political ends while doing nothing to protect actual consumers," Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said in a November statement. "The Internet was vibrant place of commerce and public discourse before the rules ever took effect and will continue to flourish after we discard this unnecessary and harmful regulatory overhang."

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said the move would "wipe out court-tested rules and a decade's work in order to favor cable and telephone companies," and called it "ridiculous and offensive to the millions of Americans who use the Internet every day."

Brendan Carr, the commission's third Republican, said the order "would restore Internet freedom by reversing the Obama-era FCC's regulatory overreach" and return the FCC to the principle "that the government should not control or heavily regulate Internet access."

Democrat Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the proposal "legally suspect" and "a giveaway to the nation's largest communications companies," urging her colleagues to "put these drafts where they belong: in the trash heap."

The FCC's meeting is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Thursday in Washington, D.C., and will be streamed live. The vote on the "Restoring Internet Freedom" order would reclassify broadband internet as an information service -- rather than a utility -- and eliminate an internet conduct standard the commission now describes as "vague and expansive."

If the order passes, Markey said he expects it will ultimately end up before the Supreme Court.

"I think there is a very good chance that anything the FCC does on this Thursday will be overturned in the courts, and there is a wide group of private sector companies and private interest groups which are going to band together to take this to the courts," Markey said. "We are now going to move to the next stage, and that stage is to battle this to the highest level of the judiciary in the United States of America, and at the end of the day, I think we are going to be victorious."