There’s important news out this week for anyone who uses the internet, watches television or listens to the radio: The Federal Communications Commission has begun quietly eroding consumer options and affordability — with two big rule changes in its Nov. 16 open meeting. Then on Tuesday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released a statement about a planned Dec. 14 vote to roll back net neutrality rules.
“Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the Internet,” Pai’s statement reads. “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.”
Despite the positive framing of this change, advocates of net neutrality say the proposed loosening of the rules would mean internet providers could charge different amounts of money for different tiers of service.
Advocates say neutrality is essential for a free and open internet, and worry the U.S. could soon look more like Portugal — which has weaker net neutrality laws — and where internet service providers have started bundling websites in packages, as Democratic congressional candidate Ro Khanna pointed out on Twitter: Social media apps and music services, for example, are sold in separate bundles.
Critics of net neutrality, which include Pai as well as cable broadcasters, say it stifles innovation by discouraging broadcasters from investing in upgrades. The agency is also expected to propose repealing the “general conduct” rule which empower the FCC to police ISPs. The Republican-controlled commission is expected to approve the rules, though Politico reports that decision will likely wind up in the courts.
The announcement would come shortly after the FCC’s voted on a series of changes that could lead to fewer broadcast stations across the U.S. — particularly in rural areas — and make it harder for low-income people to buy broadband internet or mobile phone service.
Why should you care about fewer broadcast stations? For one, having very few local media outlets has been shown to decrease political accountability and prevent local government corruption from exposure. Yet, one of the new FCC decisions could make it easier for large media companies to dominate single markets by owning both TV stations and newspapers; the FCC is also eliminating a rule that stopped broadcaster consolidation that resulted in fewer than eight independent stations in a market — as well as caps on how many TV and radio stations a single media firm can own in one place.
The FCC argues that the rules are now outdated and pre-date “cable news and a little thing called the Internet,” as Pai said in a statement.
But, while repealing the so-called eight-station rule, for example, might not matter as much in a large market like New York City, it could have a silencing effect in more sparsely populated or rural markets, where there are already very few media outlets, as former counselor to the FCC chairman Gigi Sohn wrote in a column for the Verge: “The impact on medium and smaller markets like Fort Wayne, Indiana; Augusta, Georgia; and Bozeman, Montana will be striking,” Sohn wrote. “It’s conceivable that in those markets there will be just two or three broadcasters left.”
In his statement about that change, Pai called the eight-voices test “entirely arbitrary” and argued that it created too much competition for too few advertising dollars, particularly in those rural areas.
Yet another FCC change could have even more immediate and damaging consequences for certain Americans: The commission will roll back a key subsidy for low-income homes known as the Lifeline program — which enables many consumers to purchase broadband internet service or mobile phone service — by tightening eligibility requirements, reducing subsidies and establishing a budget cap. The changes could force some 70% of people getting service through the program to have to look for another provider.
In a withering dissent, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, said that the decision would restrict access for the typical Lifeline customer — who makes $14,000 a year: “I mourn for that mother and her prospects when it comes [to] telephone service,” Clyburn’s statement reads. “I mourn because before us is an absurd proposal devoid of promise and empathy.”
Under Pai’s leadership, the FCC has enacted a number of other reforms that critics say could harm consumers, including a 2015 rule that required telephone companies to notify people before discontinuing their copper wiring to upgrade it to fiber, which doesn’t always work as well.
Who to contact about net neutrality
The most controversial and well-known initiative of of Pai’s 10-month tenure is his decision to begin rolling back the FCC’s net neutrality rules, which prevent internet service providers from providing different tiers of internet to different customers and websites.
Nov 21. 2017, 11:40 a.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.
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