Trump's FCC begins to roll back Obama-era internet data regulations

The agency is beginning to reverse some of the policies viewed as unpopular among big phone and cable companies.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
FCC commissioner Ajit Pai presents his dissent during a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearing at the FCC in Washington in 2013.

Less than a month into Donald Trump's presidency, the new administration's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been quick to set itself apart from its predecessor. 

New FCC chairman Ajit Pai voiced support on Friday for "zero-rating," or not counting the use of certain apps and services toward data caps, a practice criticized by the Obama-era FCC as recently as last month. The FCC will drop all investigations into zero-rating practices, the Commission announced in a news release. 

"These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace," said Mr. Pai in a statement. "Going forward, the Federal Communications Commission will not focus on denying Americans free data." 

"Free-data plans" have become increasingly popular as a strategy to promote certain streaming video or music services. Verizon customers are able to stream its Go90 video service without getting charged for data usage, and AT&T customers can stream its DirecTV video service over the AT&T wireless network without that data counting toward their monthly cap. Both companies praised the FCC's recent decision, saying their zero-rating practices benefited consumers. 

But opponents argue that the practice allows companies to gain an unfair advantage by zero-rating their own services, a potential violation of net neutrality rules. 

"The FCC is saying that AT&T and Verizon are allowed to zero rate their own video services, and effectively charge customers more to access competing services," said Ryan Clough, general counsel for consumer watchdog group Public Knowledge, in a statement, as reported by CNET. "The 2015 net neutrality rules are still the law, but that doesn't mean very much if the FCC refuses to enforce them." 

After long national debate, the FCC voted to pass the most sweeping net neutrality rules in US history in February of 2015. As Cristina Maza reported for The Christian Science Monitor at the time: 

The new rules aim to ensure that Internet service providers (ISPs) cannot discriminate between content-makers by blocking or deliberately slowing some content while offering prioritization for those willing or able to pay. Mobile data service for smartphones and tablets also are being placed under the new rules. The directive also includes requirements to protect consumer privacy and to ensure Internet service is available for people with disabilities and in remote areas...

Net neutrality, or an open Internet, is the concept that ISPs should give consumers equal access to all legal content and applications. That means ISPs could not favor or block some content-makers or charge them to provide faster delivery of their content, in what are known as “fast lanes.” ISPs would also be forbidden from slowing the content of competing providers.

Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, has long opposed net neutrality, prompting speculation that the newly-adopted rules could be a prime target of Trump's FCC. 

"During the Trump administration, we will shift from playing defense at the FCC to going on offense," Pai said in December. "We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation."

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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